Essential work: Nurse Becky keeps Mary Hogan running

Before the pandemic Mary Hogan Elementary School nurse Rebecca McKee spent her days tending to minor scratches and bruises, comforting kids who didn’t feel well, and propping her office door wide open so others could wander in to say hi. On weekends, and during the summer, she worked per diem at Porter Pediatrics.

But since the virus arrived last spring, her role has transformed. McKee (aka Nurse Becky) is one of the many essential workers at Mary Hogan keeping the school running smoothly while navigating the uncharted territory of in-person learning during a global pandemic — all while raising her own four children, who were learning from home side-by-side with McKee until this fall. 

We asked McKee what it’s like to be a school nurse right now.

How does a typical day at school look now? 

My typical day is very different from what it used to be, mostly because I don’t get to see as many students as I used to. Each classroom has a kit of supplies to take care of the minor scrapes, bumps, cuts, itchies, etc. They had those kits before, but it was more common for students to come to me for most of those things. I also had many students who liked to just stop and say hi to check in. 

I have to keep my doors closed for the most part now, so I take advantage of the times I do get to see students and make sure that when they come to see me they feel welcome, important and, most of all, safe. I also spend a lot of time making phone calls or checking in with families over email to help them problem-solve and plan for getting their kids back to school after being sick or when they’ve had to travel. 

What have been your biggest day-to-day challenges since returning to in-person school?

Helping to make sure a school-full of kids can all come to school safely. Thankfully, we all work closely as a team to support each other and the school — Mrs. Kravitz, Mrs. Wisell, Mr. Pratt, teachers, Mary Hogan staff, all my amazing nurse colleagues — we all work really hard to think about every scenario and detail that comes up so we can help make the best and safest possible decisions.

Did you have hesitations about returning to in-person school? 

I sure did, and I still sometimes do. Vermont has been so low in numbers for COVID, which is great, but it can make things a little tricky, too. On one hand, it allows us to be able to come together for school in person … but it also has the potential to allow us to become a little too relaxed. I think that’s what makes me the most nervous. 

Our students and parents overall have been amazing, and I’m so grateful for that! As a parent, it’s also nerve-wracking to think about if my own kids got sick, or if I ended up getting sick. It’s been a time of learning how to take care of ourselves and each other the best we can and learning to be flexible with whatever comes up day to day. 

You have four kids of your own — how did your family manage the remote learning situation last spring? 

Oof. It was tricky. I didn’t work at Porter Pediatrics much but I was able to continue working at home as the school nurse. The amazing Mary Hogan Social Emotional Learning team — Mrs. Lee, Mr. Lester, Xanthe Kilzer, Krista Desabrais, and now Jena Zuckerman — adopted me as one of their own and I got to help as a part of the team. 

So my own kids were able to have me home while they worked remotely. Like most families, it wasn’t easy to figure out how to make this work, but I felt fortunate that I could do most of my job while I was home with them. The nurses and I did grocery deliveries (to local families who needed food assistance) once a week as well, so my girls would often tag along for the ride when I went on my route. 

Have there been any silver linings for you and your family in these strange times? 

There have! My own kids and I got way closer after school closed. Many days weren’t easy, but over the course of the last few months of remote learning, our little family started to feel different in a good way. 

As all young kids do, my own kids had a hard time as children of recently divorced parents; it was as if we were going and going and even when one of them hit their boiling point, we had to just keep going anyway. COVID made us stop and slow down, focus on supporting each other through a tough time, and just spend more time together. Someone said to me, “They got their ‘mom cup’ filled up!” and it made a big difference. 

It’s hard for parents not to get a little spooked at the first sign of a cough/runny nose these days. How are you approaching this as a school nurse? 

My kids will likely tell you that I have always tended to take the “really … you’re gonna be fine…” approach. 

Now, it’s a pandemic, and it really stinks, because I can’t just give my kid a pack of tissues and a cough drop and say OK, just keep drinking lots of water today and we’ll see how you feel. And I can’t [do that for students either].

But … a runny nose or cough right now is probably not COVID because Vermonters have done such a great job being careful and cautious. So as a school nurse, I evaluate the coughs and runny noses — while I’m in my PPE — and because we have to be careful, I send them home, or I recommend they stay home if parents ask beforehand. I also recommend they call their doctor to determine the next best steps. 

As a nurse and a mom, I am most helpful when I stay calm, knowing that, yep, it’s likely just a cold, but we’re doing everything we can just in case it’s not. If and when we have to handle a case of COVID in our school or in our district, I wholeheartedly believe we’ll be ready. To our community from the ACSD nurses: We’ve got you. `

Schools in our area have been welcoming their youngest students back to full-time, in-person learning over the last few weeks. Countless unsung heroes and essential workers are making this transition possible during the uncertainty of the global pandemic. Know someone we should feature? Email meganj@addisonindependent.com

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