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Mitchell school nurses 'keep busy' while guiding district through sickness, health

On-site health professionals crucial in helping students stay safe, superintendent says

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Marlett Snoozy sits inside the nurse's room at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School. Snoozy serves as the school nurse for both GBR and L.B. Williams Elementary School for Mitchell.
Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic

MITCHELL — Since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, people working in the healthcare industry have faced a myriad of challenges. When the disease began to sweep across the world in 2020, doctors, nurses and other professionals were stretched to the limits to address the needs of the sick.

Among those on the front lines were school nurses, whose obligation is to provide services of leadership, community and public health, care coordination and quality improvement, according to the National Association of School Nurses.

Marlett Snoozy, 66, is one of three school nurses working in the Mitchell School District. Working in the nursing field since 1975, the Huron native worked as a public health nurse in Wyoming for 20 years before returning to the Mitchell area. She started with the district in 2021.

“We keep busy, that’s for sure,” Snoozy told the Mitchell Republic about working as a school nurse during a global outbreak.

The three nurses with the Mitchell School District monitor the health and treatment of approximately 2,750 students — the total of all students in grades K-12 — across all five school buildings. Snoozy works primarily at Longfellow Elementary School and Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School, and duties range from administering sight and hearing tests to patching scraped knees on the playground.

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And, of course, monitoring students and staff for COVID-19.

While she was new at the role of school nurse, she brought decades of experience to the position, as well as a background in public health that had seen her train for potential disease outbreaks.

“When I worked in public health, we thought H1N1 was going to be our pandemic. After (the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks), we started preparations for pandemics or whatever else might happen in our world,” Snoozy said. “But now we’re having it, and it’s amazing what it has done to our world.”

When the pandemic first hit the Mitchell area, the populace reacted in a similar manner to the rest of the country. Many public gathering events, such as sports matchups and concerts, were canceled or postponed in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease. The Mitchell School District was one of the center points of discussion on the topic of public health and safety. The school moved to remote learning for a time before returning to in-person classes with a mask requirement.

Some of the moves were controversial and drew public pushback on COVID-19 policies. It was and remains a stressful time, but the overall duties and goals of the school nurses remained largely unchanged. They were on the front line helping protect students from a new health threat.

Snoozy said school nurses are not immune to the stress of the situation, but she felt that some district employees faced challenges that were just as daunting as they continued to provide a classroom education in less-than-ideal circumstances.

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Marlett Snoozyserves as the school nurse for both Gertie Belle Rogers and L.B. Williams Elementary Schools in Mitchell.
Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic

Having served as a substitute teacher in the district and as someone who occasionally teaches health classes herself, she felt the difficulty of working with and communicating through masks. Despite organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention touting the effectiveness of masks in their role against COVID-19, she understood the frustration of working with the face coverings.

“The kids were great with masks, but I think the teachers probably had a higher stress level in the classrooms. I taught a class last year and I had to wear a mask during that process, and it was for about an hour, and I couldn’t imagine doing it all day,” Snoozy said.

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Many parents expressed their dislike for the mask mandate, with some attending Mitchell Board of Education meetings to implore the district to rescind the requirement. Several months of contentious debate followed before the board eventually removed the mask mandate.

Snoozy said she empathized with those who were frustrated, but she found in her interactions with district students and parents that the public was genuinely interested in helping her and her colleagues do their jobs. They did this by reporting potential illnesses and adhering to the recommendations of the school nurses.

“The parents are very good about calling and letting us know if they had an exposure in the family,” Snoozy said.

Snoozy said she follows CDC guidelines for addressing COVID-19. The school nurses have the ability to test for COVID-19, and, though it is not required for a student to be tested, most parents allow it for the sake of their own child and the other students in the classroom.

“Most parents will do it just because they want to make sure the kids in school are safe,” Snoozy said.

Of course, parents do get frustrated. Students do better in school when they can attend in-person classes with their classmates, and for some households, having a child home sick from school for days at a time can be difficult to juggle. Single working parents may need to arrange for childcare, which cuts into the family budget.

The pandemic has brought stress to everyone in the world, Snoozy said, and she and her fellow school nurses do their best to empathize and be supportive. In response, she has found the vast majority of parents she has interacted with in her position to be understanding, as well.

“I know it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating when they have to stay home when they have small children. It is difficult for single families. So I empathize with them and the difficulties,” Snoozy said. “But I don’t recall a parent really getting upset with me. Most of them want their kids safe and want other kids safe, too.”

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A report from the National Library of Medicine from 2018 estimates there were approximately 132,300 self-identified practicing public and private school nurses and 95,800 full time equivalents of school nurses in the United States at the time. The pandemic has put pressure on the profession and has made it difficult for some districts to keep their school nurses, but Joe Graves, superintendent for the Mitchell School District, said Mitchell had been fortunate.

“Not really,” Graves said when asked if the district had difficulty in finding nurses to fill its staff. “We’ve always been able to find some really wonderful nurses to fill these roles.”

That’s good, because the five schools in the district would not function as well as they do — especially in these days tainted by COVID-19 — without them.

“They have been extraordinary. They have taken on tasks these past two years — testing, etc. — that were entirely new, but they never flinched. Our Florence Nightingales have pitched in with nothing but positive attitudes and the highest levels of expertise,” Graves said.

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The outbreak is certainly a focus, but other illnesses and injuries do not necessarily stop just because COVID-19 is among us. Even outside the realm of the pandemic, school nurses are a vital part of keeping the school district running and maintaining the integrity of each student’s educational experience.

They are an often-overlooked asset, Graves said.

“And that has been true for a very long time. They are such an important part of our overall service to the children of the community,” Graves said.

COVID-19 is still a part of the world, and the district expects to keep pushing forward and dealing with it. The most recent coronavirus infection report from the district notes that active cases of the disease had fallen from 47 to 34, and absences due to COVID-19 quarantines, influenza and stomach viruses all declined, bringing the average absence rates close to normal at some schools.

That doesn’t happen without the school’s on-site health professionals, he said.

Snoozy said it is always pleasing to see infection numbers go down, but she and her fellow school nurses, Nicole Hohn and Brenda Axemaker, would stay vigilant and alert. New variants of the disease continue to emerge, and work on updated vaccines continues, and they must be ready to adjust as needed.

That is their job, after all, and they plan to do it for the health and safety of their schools.

“It will be interesting to see what happens down the road. It would be nice if it would lay low, but you just don’t know how everything changes,” Snoozy said. “But I love nursing, otherwise I wouldn’t have been in it for this long.”

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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