School nurses have been on the front lines of New Hampshire’s schools’ daily battle against COVID-19, with the goal of keeping the number of cases low enough so that schools remain open for personal learning.
At Bow Elementary, that nurse is Shannon Donahue. Her work day often begins before she is inside the building in the morning, as fellow employees wave to her in the parking lot to ask for her advice on exposure to security protocols. From that moment on, she was busy making phone calls and answering emails from parents and teachers, answering questions and providing advice and updating on exposures and the student’s isolation status. It also screens students for symptoms, sends them home if they are sick and notifies staff, parents, and the Department of Health and Human Services if they test positive.
“I really consider myself a holistic nurse. If someone comes to me with a health problem, I focus on everything about them,” Donahue said, of your nursing style. “How is your sleep? How is your diet? How is your pressure? I’m not just trying to focus on this problem you have, I’m trying to approach everything from a holistic point of view.”
Donahoe became a school nurse 11 years ago, after starting her career as an accountant. Caring for health and wellness, which started as a hobby, became a full-time job when she went back to school and decided to seriously pursue nursing.
“She has worked tirelessly since the start of COVID to keep our school and the children of our community safe,” writes Miranda Belmont, a kindergarten specialist and one of two people who nominated Donahue as a champion in her hometown. “She always has a smile on her face. She is a wonderful and caring member of our community and I don’t know if we would have done all this in school without her support and help.”
School nurses’ approach to care has changed slightly in the past two years. Whereas previously, school nursing was all about helping children relieve their symptoms enough to return to class, the pandemic has necessitated removing symptomatic students from class to mitigate risks to others.
Karen Odette is the school nurse at Boscawen Elementary School. She says this switch has been a major switch for both her and her families.
“My job before was to keep the kids in school. Now I send them home with a runny nose because that could be a symptom of COVID,” Odette said. “And we see kids with a runny nose and they test positive. I know sending these kids home affects families and their work and things like that, and that makes it stressful.”
Odette has been a nurse for 21 years, having previously worked at Merrimack Valley High School, St. Paul’s School, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital and Concord. In addition to her day spent caring for students and assessing their symptoms, Audet attends regular meetings with state health officials such as epidemiologist Dr. Ben Chan and other school nurses from across the state. Like Donahoe, she spends much of the day on the phone and in her email, answering parental questions about symptoms and quarantine requirements.
“We feel very fortunate that Karen is leading us through this pandemic,” wrote first grade teacher Sally Fisher, who nominated Odette as her hometown hero. She provides timely information without confusion. She understands many points of view. She is empathetic towards everyone. She has kept her sense of humor and smile. She is fair and considerate. She keeps in touch with staff and families even during weekends and breaks so that everyone has the knowledge. they need to move forward safely.”
Audet loves working with children and says she missed days when they came to visit for reasons other than COVID symptoms. She said it can be difficult to explain the threshold for sending a child home from school — the child only needs to display a symptom of COVID-19 to send home — to parents who haven’t followed COVID guidelines at home closely.
“Our school is following New Hampshire Department of Health guidelines, and a lot of places don’t,” Odette said. “So a lot of people don’t realize that, because they probably aren’t following the strict guidelines that the Department of Health wants us to follow.”
For Donahoe, the hardest part of her job — the one she’s had to do a lot this month — is telling families to quarantine during the holidays.
“I had to do it over Thanksgiving, I had to do it this week over Christmas, and it’s tough,” Donahue said. “Mothers are starting to cry on the phone. Everyone is trying to spend time with their family, meet their kids or grandparents they haven’t seen for eight or 10 months and have made plans and can’t do it now. I am unfortunately the one who has to pass this news on to them.”
Donahue said one of her biggest successes this year was the vaccination clinic she organized at Bow Elementary, where 113 students got the COVID-19 vaccine and 36 adults got a booster. Donahoe described organizing the event as “an act of love.”
School nurses across the state have worked more days and hours in the past two school years than at any other time in their careers. Audet said that the paperwork alone required to chart the positives and negatives can result in very long work days. Donahoe said she worked seven days a week throughout the 2020-21 school year and summer, along with other school staff, to come up with safety protocols and prepare for an in-person return in the fall.
“I want these kids to be safe. These kids are like my kids, they’re like a working family, I want to take care of them,” Donahoe said. “So you say to yourself, ‘Well, I’m doing this because I want to keep these kids safe, that’s all. It matters. Nothing else matters at that point, you know? Yes, I’d like to sit on the beach, but that’s a little more important.”
When discussing their work, Donahue and Audet both emphasized their roles as part of the teams, saying they wouldn’t be anywhere without the help of their co-workers, the support of officials and the solidarity of other school nurses statewide.
“I get a lot of support from my administration, which is very important right now with COVID,” Donahoe said. “People always ask me if they can help and they are always nice and they tell me I am doing a good job. I don’t know if I would still be able to do it if it didn’t.”