When Jane Brophy, head nurse at Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital, gets home from work, she puts down her bag, says hello to her husband and five children — and then goes out to frolic with her 10 chickens for the next 30 or 45 minutes.
“It sounds crazy, but the stress sort of melts away,” she says. “It’s really, really relaxing.”
The hat of a chicken owner is far from the only new one that Brophy has donned since the dawn of COVID-19.
The “chicken wonderland” in her yard is how she copes with the stress of staying on top of fluctuating public health guidelines, answering hundreds of emails day and night, managing weekly testing and spending three or four hours contact tracing each time a student or staff member tests positive. Because of the omicron variant, it’s multiple cases every day. Even people outside of the Milton Gottesman community will reach out for guidance.
Sometimes Brophy must notify close contacts on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. “It’s pikuach nefesh,” she says, referring to the Jewish principle that saving a human being’s life comes before almost any religious commandment.
Brophy — who left a previous job as a neonatal intensive care unit nurse seeking greater work-life balance — now works almost 24/7 to maintain the health of the Milton Gottesman community, while trying to provide as normal a school experience for the kids as she can.
“It’s basically an entire second job on top of a regular full-time job. It’s exhausting trying to juggle everything,” she says. “I live and breathe COVID — without having COVID.”
And she struggles to turn off her brain during nights, weekends and school breaks. She makes an effort not to check her email during family movie nights, which mean a great deal because her family avoids socializing with others indoors out of concern for the virus.
Right after, though, she’s back on her phone. “If I’m not checking my email, I’m worried — what if I missed a positive case and delayed notifying the contacts of someone who has COVID and therefore inadvertently added to community spread? It’s this rabbithole,” she says.
Before the pandemic, being a school nurse meant that work stayed at work. It was a full day of triaging sick and injured students, managing chronic conditions like food allergies, ensuring students were up to date on vaccines and physicals, and administering medications and hearing and vision screenings.
Now, all these responsibilities remain, but on the “back burner,” says Natasha Oksenhendler, head nurse at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville.
“The pandemic has blown up my duties tenfold,” she says. “As a school nurse, I’ve experienced a certain degree of trauma. My role went from school nurse to the medical authority on all things COVID. I’m a mom to these kids, I’m a friend to my colleagues, I’m an epidemiologist, I’m a communicator, I’m a policymaker. It went from zero to 100, almost overnight.”
Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School is a private school, so there is no district making virus-related decisions. The medical advisory committee has more autonomy, she says, but also more liability. For example, some parents worry about exposure if their kids eat indoors but others get upset if their kids eat outside in the cold.
“We have to make our own decisions based on what we see in our community, and we have to navigate sometimes very murky waters,” she says. “It’s not always a very easy thing to do. It’s hard to please everyone — impossible, actually. But we do our best.”
She continued: “If there’s one word I could use to describe my job right now, it’s stressful. But at the same time, it is very rewarding for me to be able to be part of helping these kids be in school and have in-person learning. I’m doing what I’m meant to do.”
For Brophy, it’s been gratifying to help one student, who used to be nervous just getting a Band-Aid, become more comfortable with COVID testing and healthcare providers in general.“The chance to make a difference for these kids is huge,” she says. “We’re wearing masks and covering half of our faces, but there’s still opportunities to build those connections, and that’s why I’m doing it. That’s why I’m still going to go to work when I’m tired and when I get yelled at by someone who’s frustrated.”
She adds: “Everybody’s struggling — from the maintenance staff to security to the teachers. Everyone’s just tired and stretched very thin doing a million jobs, wearing a million hats. Even if sometimes we don’t see other people there for us because it’s busy, I know as a team we’re all there for each other.”
Luckily, Brophy works with another nurse. And so does Oksenhendler, who says she feels especially invested in the health of her school because it’s her — and all of her siblings’ — alma mater.
This personal connection, she says, makes it hard not to answer emails at night or on weekends — because she wants families to feel like they can rely on her when they ask her specific questions about whether children should quarantine or isolate.
It’s time-consuming, she says, because there’s no one size fits all. “I’m very grateful that I’m not an island, that I’m not doing this on my own,” Oksenhendler says. “A wonderful nurse is my partner in this pandemic. She’s phenomenal and has really been a great support system.”
The virus and its effects on Jewish day schools — and the world at large — aren’t going away anytime soon. Brophy expects more variants to emerge, and is grateful that an increasing number of students and staff are vaccinated.
The pandemic, she says, has completely altered what it means to be a school nurse.
When students need an ice pack or Band-Aid, staff will call down on walkie talkies to avoid making the health room a site of potential exposure. “COVID has even changed the face of getting an ice pack,” she said.
“We’re all frustrated, we’re all tired, we all want the pandemic to end. But a few kind words really go a long way. Even a parent saying ‘thank you’ means the world.”
And what makes all the hard work worth it, Oksenhendler said, is knowing that it’s appreciated.
“In March of 2020, we closed our schools for what we thought would be two weeks. We never envisioned that we would still be here two years later dealing with COVID,” she said. “More than anything, I’m grateful to the community for their support and for rolling with all of the punches and ever-changing policies and taking this crazy ride with us.”