Carolyn Henning loves golf and bike riding.
And she is very grateful that she has been able to pursue those pastimes during a very unusual year that has involved a sea change in her job as school nurse at Eden Prairie High School.
Henning, a registered nurse, a licensed Public Health Nurse and a licensed school nurse, has been in her job for 29 years, far and away the most senior of nurses in the Eden Prairie school district.
The district has four others licensed nurses – one at Central Middle School and four others that move between the district’s elementary schools.
A year ago she could not have imagined what awaited her as February turned into March and suddenly everything changed.
A new virus, COVID-19, had emerged shortly after the beginning of the year and then spread across the country and the world. Educators and health care professionals reacted to what they were learning. When schools were closed in March they went to work on establishing a totally online system.
As summer came to a close and the decision was made to reopen with a hybrid system – part virtual, part in school – they had to figure out how to safely bring groups of people back together again.
“Here’s the thing,” Henning said, “we did a lot of planning but we didn’t know what to expect. I thought it would go pretty well but who knows?”
According to information presented at the Oct. 26 school board meeting, positive COVID-19 cases have been identified in seven of the district’s eight school buildings in the 14 days ending Oct. 22. Five staff and 18 students have been reported positive during that period. There are 1,825 staff and 8,768 students in the district. Staff include coaches, advisors, and reserve staff.
Henning thinks that record is a success under the circumstances. “We’re not a spreader,” she said of the schools.
“We’re not going to spread it here, but will we have cases because there’s a case in the family? Yes. But the community has done a good job keeping their kids home if they have symptoms.”
A typical day at a school that typically holds 2,800 students looks different now than it did pre-COVID, Henning said. “We have fewer kids in the health room with immediate chronic and acute health care needs,” she said.
“We’re doing way more working closely with attendance and anybody with symptoms or when we have students coming in to assess if we need to send them home.”
Temperature checks are conducted on all students and staff as they enter the building each day, she said.
Students with symptoms are sent home more frequently this school year. That’s also a change from the past. “Before, our job was to keep kids in school,” Henning said, “and now our job is to say, in an abundance of caution, we have to send you home. The beauty of this is they’re going to go home and if they’re not too sick, they’re going to go online and they’re going to get the same 3rd hour history class they would have had sitting in class.”
That means that students quarantined for 14 days because of symptoms are not actually missing 14 days of school, she said.
Much of her job now is communicating with families as well as state epidemiologists and other school health practitioners. “I say to my husband, I feel like a telephone triage nurse most of the time,” she said.
“But it’s public health nursing. That’s what you do and we’re managing it better than I thought. We have a good system here in Eden Prairie.” Each school building has a designated COVID administrator to ensure clear lines of communication, she said.
Before coming to Eden Prairie in 1991, Henning worked as an adolescent psychiatric nurse for 34 years at United Hospitals in St. Paul, in both inpatient and outpatient units – including 22 years on-call while working in the district.
Even with that challenging history, the past eight months have been among the most unusual, she said.
“Our practices has changed a little for sure,” she said. “We’ve always worked with MDH (Minnesota Department of Health) on communicable diseases but this is a whole different ballgame.”
Weekly calls and online meetings with members of the Minnesota school nurse organization are used to share new information and best practices, she said.
Students and staff are playing a large role in keeping COVID numbers low in the schools, Henning said. “They want to be in school, so they’re willing to do what they need to do to be in school,” she said of the students.
“For the most part, even the teenagers are doing great. It’s a challenge.” As for the school building itself: “It’s quieter,” she said with a rueful smile. “The lunch room is different. Tables are further apart, one student at each.”
To illustrate students’ adaptability, Henning recalled a screening visit with a young elementary student earlier this fall. “I asked him, ‘what’s it like for you wearing a mask?’ He said, ‘Ya, I wear it all the time but when my mom picked me up and we were in the car for 10 minutes and I thought, I still have my mask on. I don’t need to wear my mask, I just forgot!’ It was so cute.”
What are her hopes for the future – other than getting back to golf and biking?
“I’d sure like to see case counts go way down, the spread go way down, get a good vaccine that people would trust and that we start vaccinating,” she said. “There is fatigue with everything you have to do. People are done with it; they don’t want to do it anymore. But look what happens if you don’t maintain your vigilance.”
COVID positive cases in Eden Prairie have risen from 13 per 10,000 residents in mid September to 23 per 10,000 in mid October, according to the Hennepin County COVID-19 public dashboard.
That number is still below the overall county incidence of 25.5 per 10,000.
Despite all of the challenges, Henning says she could not be happier being back at work.
“The biggest joy is being back in the building with people,” she said. “Because I was here a lot when there was nobody here. In March and April. It was eerie and I was so happy to see people – staff and kids. I didn’t like working at home. We’re making it work and it’s not so doom and gloom.”