Role of school nurses challenged, changed by pandemic

School nurse Mykette McFarlane
Mykette McFarlane in the school nurses' office at Jefferson Elementary in Spokane.

A year after most schools in Washington began welcoming students back to the classroom, school nurses have been “pushed to the brink” by the COVID-19 pandemic, says Rebecca Doughty, a WSU College of Nursing graduate (MN ‘12, BSN ‘10) who leads health services at Spokane Public Schools.   

In the last year, nurses have been tasked with tracking students who are sick or quarantining after possible COVID exposure; contact-tracing and notifications to people those students came into contact with; testing and screening students and staff; and defusing parents’ anger over mask-wearing, all in addition to the traditional work of a school nurse. For high-school nurses – and increasingly in K-12 – caring for students’ mental health is a big part of their role.  

“I see the level of exhaustion and frustration,” said Doughty recently of the 42 nurses who serve Spokane Public Schools’ 30,000 students. “I’m amazed every single day that they keep at it, working hard to make sure kids can stay in school and stay safe in school.”  

At the same time, the pandemic has raised the profile of school nurses, notes Lauren Bray, BSN ‘14, a nurse at Garfield Elementary in the Spokane Public Schools district.  

“I think our role has become a lot more visible in a school setting, our ability to adapt and be flexible and collaborate with public health,” Bray said. “There’s a different respect now for school nurses.” 

Mykette McFarlane, BSN ‘20, was drawn to school nursing by the team aspect of caring for kids, where counselors, administrators, teachers and nurses work together to help students be healthy and ready to learn.  

She became the school nurse at Jefferson Elementary in Spokane in September and said the best part has been getting to know the kids. The worst part has been negotiating COVID-19 restrictions with parents who are angry that their child must quarantine.  

Vivecca Campbell, who expects to receive her RN-BSN degree from the WSU College of Nursing in Yakima in May, said the demands of contact tracing and pushback from parents drove her away from school nursing. She was the only school nurse serving 450 students.  

“I could definitely see myself going back,” she said. “I just need a little break for now.”  

Despite the stresses, both Campbell and McFarlane say one joy of school nursing is helping children understand themselves better.  

“Even though someone may be asking for one thing, they may truly need another,” like one-on-one attention or a sympathetic ear, Campbell said.  

Said McFarlane, “If they’re feeling stressed, I want to legitimize that. Some of my favorite interactions are where we can turn it around to the student being ready to go back to class.”  

Bray said she appreciates the long relationships she’s able to forge with students and their families.  

Will COVID change school nursing permanently?  

“It’s hard to predict,” Bray said, but “with the different roles and responsibilities we’ve taken on (during the pandemic), it’s been a really neat transition into taking on more responsibilities in a public health realm.”