Samantha Martini, District 90 infection control officer in River Forest, says the COVID pandemic forced changes in the way she and her colleagues provide health care in the schools. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

For Samantha Martini, working under pandemic conditions is all she’s known. Martini began her career as a nurse two years ago during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, finishing her last semester of college on Zoom before heading into her first job at a local pediatric clinic. 

It was there, at that clinic, Martini said, where she saw the impact of the coronavirus on bedside manner. With masking and social distancing requirements firmly in place, she found it difficult to put in that “personal touch” and interact with families, especially young children. 

“I remember being a kid [and going to the doctor’s office]. You get to go in. You get to play with the toys, and you read the books, and you get the stickers, and do all the fun things,” she said. “That’s not what happens anymore. You stay in your car. You get calls to come into the doctor’s office after going through all the screening questions to make sure you’re not COVID positive or you haven’t had any exposure, and then you get in and you get out.” 

Martini’s experience at the clinic – the “limited contact” and all – was the reason why she went back on the job hunt, looking for open positions in schools and ultimately landing a spot at River Forest School District 90. 

At D90, Martini is part of a small team of nurses, caring for hundreds of faculty, staff and students across three schools. As the infection control officer, Martini works alongside the school nurses to investigate the outbreak cases, visiting each school separately and helping administer or collect dozens of COVID tests. Last month, D90 reported more than 100 new cases due to the Omicron variant and at least five outbreaks after staff and students returned from a two-week winter break. School districts in nearby Oak Park and across the country experienced similar outbreak cases, but numbers of positive cases have dropped significantly in recent weeks. 

“COVID does not take off during the evenings, weekends or holiday breaks,” Martini said, noting it’s “tedious work” to keep track of staff and students who test positive or are named close contacts on top of ever-changing COVID guidelines. And what some people may not realize is that this work only makes up a fraction of their job. 

Many school nurses who spoke to Wednesday Journal opened up about how their lives changed once the pandemic hit and how many people, including their colleagues, were widely unaware of their duties before the novel coronavirus came and settled in. 

“Everybody thinks it’s Band-Aids on boo-boos and ice packs, but there’s a lot more to it – a lot more to it,” said Lauren Giorango, a nurse at Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park. 

School nurses are responsible for many things. They often team up with their schools’ special education teachers and help assess and identify the needs of students with disabilities. They also educate families on various health issues and trends and conduct regular vision and hearing screenings, as well as tend to students’ daily needs. That could range from caring for students with diabetes, allergies or seizure disorders or who just need some TLC, said Gina Hardy and Pam Clink, a pair of longtime school nurses who work alongside Martini at D90. 

Gina Hardy, the school nurse at Roosevelt Middle School in River Forest | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

Giorango said school nurses are also, at times, the first to recognize whether students may be facing some mental health issues, which have been exacerbated throughout the pandemic. 

Giorango, who has worked at Julian for two years, said that some students with anxiety can experience different physical ailments such as a stomach ache.   

“So, their first stop is at the nurse’s office, and then we try to figure out like, ‘Are you OK?’ ‘Are you sick?’ ‘Are you really symptomatic or is something else going on?’ Like, ‘Do you have a test coming up or [did] you get into trouble with a teacher and now you don’t feel good?’” she said. “A lot of kids don’t want to be forthcoming with that, so [I] get to do a little digging to get it out of them.” 

Other school nurses interviewed by the Journal also talked about the district’s efforts to hire more nurses and expand their medical teams, especially in recent months. Throughout the course of the pandemic, school districts in Oak Park and River Forest, much like the rest of the nation, have faced various staffing shortages, including school nurses, substitute teachers and custodial staff. For many nurses, rising stress levels, especially during the COVID pandemic, contribute to job dissatisfaction and high turnover, is just one factor contributing to the overall shortage of nurses, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. In particular, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend schools have only one nurse per 750 students

Julee Terretta, a nurse at Oak Park and River Forest High School, remembered when the school first reopened, allowing staff and students back into the building, and the positive cases began rolling in. She pulled her two-member staff together – an office manager and another full-time nurse – and became the “COVID people,” trying to figure out contact tracing. This was before mass COVID testings and vaccines for eligible staff and students were available. 

OPRF’s head school nurse Julee Terretta | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

“We were basically self-taught and figured out on our own what exactly we needed to do to figure out who was going to need to quarantine,” she said. Terretta recalled watching a video on how to administer and read the results of a rapid COVID test and teaching her staff what she learned. 

“I had to train my other staff in the office to do that,” Terretta told the Journal, adding she also had to make sure the district had the right waivers on file to administer those tests. 

Terretta said she felt the work getting heavier and heavier and told district staff that they needed more hands-on deck. 

“One thing that I had really stressed to the district was at some point, it’s going to become overwhelming and really encouraged the district to put together the COVID team, which is what we have now [and] who manages the bulk of our cases.” 

With the pandemic marking its second year, some school nurses seem hopeful as COVID cases have tapered off and vaccines have expanded to younger children while others are recovering from burnout and stress. 

One District 97 nurse, Hilary Winkelhake, told the Journal she feels optimistic and said that most of her energy comes from seeing her students, and she’s eager for the day when masking requirements are lifted. 

“I just feel like we’re going to be OK,” she said. “I don’t always say I feel like that every moment, but that’s like the majority of my thoughts – [we] do the best we can.” 

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