BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER— In a normal year, a school nurse’s day is filled with managing student medication, answering parent phone calls, conducting hearing and vision screenings and teaching students about hygiene and other health-related topics.
“Now COVID-19 takes up about 60 percent of my job,” said Jill Beach, the Anthony Wayne High School nurse.
Waterville Primary nurse Valerie Bradfield concurs.
“All weekend and all Christmas break we were answering emails. You can’t let that linger. Parents trust us,” Bradfield said.
Bradfield, Beach and their peers Amy Baburek, Fay Birkemeier, Libby Gagen and Laura Soeder were named the 2021-22 Certified Staff of the Year by Anthony Wayne Local Schools. Usually, it’s an honor for one person, but these past two years have been different, said Super-intendent Dr. Jim Fritz.
“The nurses have gone above and beyond in their positions. They have demonstrated all of the Portrait of a General competencies when working through the COVID-19 pandemic,” Fritz said. “The district thanks each of the nurses for their outstanding service to the students, parents and staff in our school buildings.”
When it comes to COVID-19, all six women agree that another person should be recognized as well: dean of students Lori Williams, who is the district’s COVID-19 liaison. Williams attends all of the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department meetings and works endless hours to provide support and guidance to the nurses, students and staff, the nurses all agree.
For the nurses, COVID-19 has meant answering questions from parents, students and staff, monitoring siblings of students who have symptoms and keeping everyone informed.
“We also provide a lot of reassurance and encouragement,” said Soeder, White-house Primary nurse.
The parents have been very understanding during a challenging two years in which the guidelines are constantly changing, said junior high nurse Gagen.
“They know that I’m doing my job, and I appreciate all they’re doing as well,” she said.
The job goes way beyond COVID-19. Nurses work with students who need insulin, inhalers or other medications. Nurses also conduct mandatory vision and hearing screenings for every student in kindergarten and grades 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 every year. In addition, nurses help out with district wellness initiatives and in planning student and staff activities at the schools.
“We still all have our nursing jobs, helping students with acute problems, taking care of chronic conditions and caring for staff,” said Birkemeier, the Monclova Primary nurse. “We are available evenings and weekends, too.”
Following state requirements, the primary nurses go into the classroom to teach students about body changes in fourth grade and about hygiene and self-care in fifth grade.
“Sometimes we have to remind them to use soap and shower every day,” Baburek said.
At the higher grade levels, nurses work as part of a team to address mental health issues. For students with special challenges, these teams meet regularly with counselors, teachers and administrators to help find solutions in and out of the school setting.
“This pandemic has definitely affected the mental health of many of our students,” Gagen said. “We want all of our students to feel that their needs are being met academically, physically and emotionally. Working collectively helps to ensure that we are all on the same page, and that students can get the resources that they need.”
Of course, at the student level, the nurses are a source of comfort and information in the event of a scraped knee, stomachache or headache.
“Sometimes, I’ll get a kid who says he has a bellyache and I ask them what’s going on. ‘Are you hungry? Do you like math? Maybe you have to go to the bathroom?’” Birkemeier laughed. “Much of it is teaching them that you don’t necessarily need to go home when you have a bellyache. There are ways we can help you feel better to stay at school.”
It’s the same with sore throats, said Baburek, the Fallen Timbers Middle School nurse. A child might come in with a sore throat and a mint might do the trick.
While all six are registered nurses, each brings a variety of experiences to the district.
Gagen is the newest addition, joining the district last year after years of working in pediatrics – including the PICU and NICU – at ProMedica Toledo Child-ren’s Hospital. Beach and Bradfield were both hired in February 2006. Beach had worked at all levels in a hospital, a physician’s office and in senior care. Bradfield brought with her experience from a pediatric ICU and as a home care nurse. Birkemeier was a hospital pediatric nurse for 14 years before being hired for Monclova Primary in 2007.
Soeder worked in Columbus for four years in an intensive care unit for post-procedure open-heart surgery patients before moving back to Toledo in 2000. Her 26-year career has included working for Mercy St. Vincent’s and St. Anne’s hospitals in the post-anesthesia care units. When her family moved to the area, her children were White-house Primary students.
“A district nurse called me to see if I would like to be a permanent sub. I started subbing at Whitehouse in 2013, and it was awesome,” Soeder said. Six months later, she was hired as the permanent nurse.
Baburek joined Columbus Children’s Hospital after graduating in 2000, and after moving to Toledo in 2003, she worked in a pediatrician’s office and taught clinicals for Lourdes University and The University of Toledo Med-ical Center nursing students. In 2014, she began subbing for AWLS and joined the district full time the next year at Fallen Timbers.
“I was in the right place at the right time to find this nursing position, which I love. The middle school is just the right place for me,” Baburek said.
Anthony Wayne is one of the few districts with a nurse in every building. This attracts more families with children who have special health needs. Add in the phone calls, screenings and COVID-19, and each day can be exhausting, but it’s worth it, the nurses agree.
“Before I started here, I always wondered what a nurse would do all day at a school,” Soeder said. “Being at a school is an amazing place to be. Every day may bring something new and challenging. I feel very fortunate to be able to spend my days helping and caring for the little people at Whitehouse Primary.”