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'There just really isn't time to take a breath': many Illinois schools don't have enough nurses

Every school day during the pandemic is a challenge, but for school nurses, Monday mornings are uniquely difficult. That’s when nurses like Kori Mauch of the Sycamore School District start following up with the parents of students who call in sick and report COVID-related symptoms.

Did they go somewhere over the weekend where they could have been exposed? Do they need a COVID test before they can come back? Do they need to talk to their pediatrician?

“It’s time-consuming but very important," said Mauch. “Then you have some of the kids who come to school but then as that day goes on, they're not feeling well. And that whatever they were exposed to over the weekend is starting to show itself and then they come to the nurse's office.”

Mauch said they’ve had around 10,000 health office visits from students this year. Not all of those are because of COVID, but it’s a heavy, sometimes overwhelming workload for a department that’s understaffed — like many school districts.

Sycamore has seven schools and only six nurses. That includes Mauch. As district nurse, she oversees all of their health operations. Because of staff shortages, she’s been thrust into covering individual buildings as well.

“There just really isn't time to take a breath and even get caught up," she said. "So you kind of feel like you start every day behind."

They also don’t have any substitute nurses, which means if a nurse is out for a day, Mauch and her colleagues step in and add schools and their hundreds of students – at times close to a thousand -- to their duties.

“We had nurses out on Thursday, Friday, and then again yesterday," she said. "So it looked like me covering one day, a middle school building, which has about 900 students. And then the other two days were covering two buildings that had about 800 total students between the two buildings.”

That’s on top of her other responsibilities, which include providing COVID rapid tests, contact tracing and notifying families when their child is a close contact or tested positive.

“When they find out that they have to go home it definitely pulls at your heartstrings," said Mauch. "We want the kids to be able to be in school."

The nurse shortage is new in Sycamore this year. So, without that safety net, Mauch said nurses often feel guilty when they miss a day because of their own health or to care for their own kids. She said nurses’ families have also gone above and beyond.

“We have mothers [of nurses] who have come from out of state to take care of sick children, even children who are positive with COVID," she said, "so that their nurse mom could continue to work because the need is so great."

So, how many more nurses would they need to feel comfortable about staffing? Mauch said, “I mean, I would love to have a nurse in every building, or even just have some substitute nurses.”

On top of the pressure to keep kids safe and healthy, she said they’ve also had to field calls from angry parents who disagree with the COVID-19 safety protocols. Mauch said that’s new this year too.

“It has included some raised voices and accusations, even insults and profanity," said Mauch. "And those can be really disheartening and difficult on top of all of the things that we’ve devoted ourselves to as nurses and health staff.”

But there have been some silver linings as well. She said the health office can feel like an island sometimes, disconnected from the rest of the school. But the pandemic, as she said, has brought everyone to that island.

“Administration and other staff, as well as families, have gotten a front-row seat to how important it is to have a strong health department within your school district,” she said. “We're more than just band-aids and ice packs.”

Mauch said they will continue to provide health services and emotional support to students facing a range of health needs in the district. The challenge right now is just having enough time and staff to help them all.

Copyright 2021 WNIJ Northern Public Radio

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.