School nurses, staff worry about burnout

A man uses a plastic bottle to spray lockers with sanitizer.
Most Minnesota schools are into their third full week of classes, but already some staff members are worried about how much longer they’ll be able to continue running short-staffed.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News file

The day before school started, DeeDee Sivanich received her first report of a positive COVID-19 case in a student. By the third week of classes, Sivanich, a registered nurse for Osseo Senior High School, was so overwhelmed with sick children and emergency calls, she requested back-up rooms to house symptomatic kids.

On top of that, Sivanich says she sees only about half the students in her building properly wearing masks. She’s worried about the virus's spread and about the parents who send their children to school with COVID-19 symptoms.

“We can’t go back to normal. We can’t pretend that COVID isn’t a thing. And that’s what a lot of people in society are doing,” Sivanich said.

Most Minnesota schools are into their third full week of classes, but already some staff members are worried about how much longer they’ll be able to continue running short-staffed.

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Sivanich does contact tracing for positive COVID-19 cases as well as tracking who’s vaccinated and quarantined. That leaves her little, if any, time to manage the chronic health issues and medications of students in her care. A licensed practical nurse helps Sivanich look after more than 2,000 kids in her building.

According to the School Nurse Organization of Minnesota, only slightly more than a quarter of Minnesota schools have a licensed nurse position. Those with positions are having a hard time filling them. In the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district where organization president Deb Mehr works, five nurses quit last year. This year they’ve already lost one.

“They just can’t get the job done,” Mehr said. “We’ve had nurse meetings where people are crying frequently. It’s hard when you’re doing the best you can.”

It’s not just nurses. Schools need more bus drivers and cafeteria workers. Even school board members are resigning in unusually high numbers.

In Osseo, Sivanich said she had a teacher crying in her office the second day of school because the workload was so overwhelming. That same day she saw another teacher having an anxiety attack.

“If the school is broken, if the staff is broken, we can’t take care of our kids,” Sivanich said.

In Willmar, Annette Derouin directs food and nutrition programs for four different western Minnesota districts. In one, she started the year with 11 staff vacancies. Not only that, supply chains are so unreliable she’s never quite sure what food she’ll get for lunch, and has had to make many last-minute menu changes. It’s something she’s never had to do before.

“Especially in the Willmar district, where we’re a high percent free and reduced district, we know that these children and their families count on the fact that they’re getting a high-quality, nutritious meal when they come to school,” Derouin said. “It kind of keeps me up at night if I know we’re going to have struggles with that.”

‘I can see the exhaustion’

Teachers are also feeling the burden of a return to in-person school with anxious kids and climbing COVID-19 cases.

Alexei Moon Casselle, a language arts teacher at Battle Creek Middle School in St. Paul, said the return to in-person learning has been a huge transition for both students and staff at the school.

“There’s a lot of things affecting their community right now — communities that have been absolutely devastated from COVID-19,” Casselle said.

Even three weeks into the school year, Casselle said students are relearning how to behave in the classroom. “It just cannot be overstated how much has been lost when we were not in the school building.”

And it’s not just classroom teachers in his building who are under more pressure than usual this early in the school year. Casselle said he sees the stress all around.

“Even though I’m only seeing the top half of people’s faces, I can see the exhaustion,” Casselle said.

It’s a victory to have students and educators back in the classroom, Casselle added. But he wants people to remember that the pandemic isn’t over yet.

Moriah Stephens works as a special education teacher at Ann Bremer Education Center in Brooklyn Park, and said a smaller staff means she’s not able to spend as much time teaching as she would like and has to make more support calls than usual.

“The way this year is going, one or two mental health days is not going to be enough of a remedy. There needs to be significant change or I know I will not finish the school year here,” Stephens said.