Local school nurses were busy before the pandemic.

At Eagle Ridge Middle School, for example, around 70 students would visit the school nurse each day.

With COVID-19, and a myriad of new responsibilities, local licensed school nurses say community support and a passion for their work helped them face the challenges of the past year. Nationally, the contributions of nurses are recognized annually during Nurses Week from May 6-12.

“School nursing is an amazing profession,” said Bernie Bien, the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage District’s lead school nurse.

Bien joined the district over 25 years ago when she became the school nurse at Hidden Valley Elementary. She also spent time at Edward Neill Elementary and M.W. Savage Elementary before stepping into her current role.

“I live and breathe District 191,” she joked.

The district’s seasoned health services team hasn’t seen much turnover in the past two decades.

“School nursing is the most rewarding position I’ve ever had,” said Jane Eilertson, who joined Eagle Ridge Middle School 18 years ago after working in pediatric nursing. “School nurses overall — we just wear lots of hats.”

In addition to being a registered nurse, licensed school nurses have completed further education in public health.

“It’s more than just bumps and headaches and scrapes and tummy aches — it’s community health,” Eilertson said.

The pandemic brought many new “hats” for school nurses to wear; At Eagle Ridge, Eilertson would weave through the classroom carrying a basket of face masks and offer to replace any masks that didn’t fit properly.

She’d also spend time in the classroom talking to students about topics such as quarantine and protecting those who may be more vulnerable to severe illness.

“The key has been keeping the students engaged with these mitigation strategies,” she said.

Health services team members say their biggest task, contact tracing, also proved to be one of the most effective measures for reducing the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s slow and deliberate to make sure we get it right,” Bien said, adding they’d reflect on each positive case with school staff and look for ways to make improvements.

Eilertson said they always looked for ways to go above and beyond the “gold standard” by implementing protocols beyond the basic requirements when possible.

“Health and safety is the bottom line and everyone has taken a huge ownership,” Bien said, adding students and families shared the district’s commitment to a safe learning environment.

The Minnesota Department of Health requires districts to track and report confirmed COVID-19 cases among students and staff who attended school while infectious. Each week, the health department publishes a list of schools that’ve recorded five or more cases over a two-week span.

Hundreds of schools have been listed off-and-on throughout the past year — including dozens southwest metro schools — yet, no Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school has ever been listed or associated with an outbreak.

Bien credits much of their success to the leadership of Superintendent Theresa Battle, who district nurses say acted to quickly bring the district’s health experts to the decision-making table.

“She realizes the skill set that a public health school nurse has,” Bien said. “We were utilized to our fullest capacity and that’s worked really well for us.”

A silver lining

Both nurses say the pandemic brought new opportunities for teamwork and collaboration; community members responded to calls for homemade face masks, volunteers served meals and district teams began working together in new ways.

“I have never seen something like this in all my years in the district,” Bien said.

Stephanie White, the district’s director of student support services, said the existing relationships between the district’s nurses and the community made it all possible.

“This is the most collaborative year we’ve ever had,” she said.

Bien, Eilertson and White say new connections have been a silver lining to a difficult year.

During the pandemic, late nights and constant demands have been the norm for the health services team — team members say they’ve found ways to help each other find moments of peace and rest.

“We are stronger, we are closer and when one team member is starting to struggle emotionally, or just burnt out, we’re able to wrap around and take on more,” Bien said.

White said leaning on each other during the pandemic will carry into their relationships afterwards, too.

“When you do meaningful work together, it just bonds you for life,” she said.