When I power up the Zoom room for my bi-weekly school nurse support groups, I am never sure who will join me and what we will discuss. The conversations are confidential, no names or school districts are collected. We come together to decompress from the impact of COVID. Through the months and months of conversations, I have learned that our colleagues, me included, are experiencing moments of extremes. One school nurse shared that she can feel simultaneously empowered and disempowered. That sentiment captures the state of school nurses as we limp towards a much-needed and welcome spring break.
What does it mean to be simultaneously empowered and disempowered? First, many school nurses feel the weight of being responsible for the health and safety of their school communities on their shoulders. While our shoulders are broad, steady, and experienced, no one can do this in a vacuum. Being empowered is participating in the design, implementation, and evaluation of the ever-changing health and safety guidelines. But, we quickly become disempowered when our recommendations, based on evidence, science, and experience, are minimized and ignored.
School nurses have shared stories of administrators directing them to no longer contact the health department. There have been reports of parents refusing to take calls from their school nurses who must send their sick child home from school. We find ourselves squeezed in the middle of teachers who feel like we are not doing enough, to parents and administrators who feel we are being “too vigilant,” as if that were possible in the midst of a pandemic. Here is a newsflash, we can never be “too vigilant.”
Our underlying and universal fear is that we will miss that one student or staff that could be asymptomatically spreading COVID in our schools. The invisible enemy that has ravaged our country and kept almost 50% of our brick and mortar school buildings closed for more than a year is a formidable foe. School nurses are working under extreme circumstances. Some report they have never felt more supported and respected and many share the exact opposite. School nurses are considering resigning, retiring, or switching nursing specialties. Our discussions focus on what we need to move forward, reminding each other not to make important career decisions when we are stressed, angry, or feeling disempowered.
I have learned the meaning of resilience from listening to colleagues across the country. There have been tears and laughter, more examples of the extremes of emotions shared during these intimate and empowering conversations. Seasoned school nurses have shared their long histories with younger colleagues who are questioning their decisions to enter the profession. Common themes of giving ourselves grace, time, reminders to reach out to trusted friends and colleagues are important reminders that we can move beyond COVID. We have reviewed the year that no one saw coming and took a deep exhale when we realized that more of it is behind us than in front of us.
It has been my professional and personal honor to host these biweekly support groups. They will continue through the rest of the school year. The program is sponsored through NJ Hope and Healing, a FEMA grant in collaboration with New Jersey Mental Health Association. Please feel free to join us on any given Sunday evening at 7 pm ET or Monday afternoons at 4 pm ET. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you a link!