The saying is that ‘nurses aren’t made, they’re born.’  Nurses who care for our most vulnerable populations are an even rarer breed. They exhibit another level of compassion, empathy, patience and care – just ask anyone who works alongside the nurses and medical support staff in New Jersey’s county special services school districts.  The calling they have to help those in need, however, has extended far beyond the walls of the schools they work in and into the community at a time when their expertise is needed most.

Bergen County Special Services School District nurses Cindy Bischoff and Karen Fritzman pose for a photo in PPE while working on the frontlines of the pandemic through the Medical Reserve Corp.

“It is both my duty and my privilege to be able to help others,” said Cindy Bischoff of being a registered nurse with Bergen County Special Services School District (BCSSSD).  When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of 2020, Bergen County became the epicenter of New Jersey’s outbreak. New Jersey schools shifted to remote learning, and Bischoff used the time away from students to help in the fight against COVID-19. “I’m so fortunate that I had the opportunity to dedicate my time to help others feel safer during a period filled with such uncertainty,” she said.

Bischoff joined Karen Fritzman, a school nurse for BCSSSD’s Woodridge Transition Center, to support the Medical Reserve Corp of Bergen County.  First volunteering with testing, then contact tracing and notifications, the tasks became so great that they needed reinforcements – that came by way of more school nurses.

“I was making calls several days a week delivering COVID testing results, but we got swamped and needed help,” remembered Fritzman.  “It’s my understanding that this was all being done by volunteer nurses. We met several other school nurses making calls with us.”

Fritzman and Bischoff have also completed training to be part of the vaccination program and will help administer the vaccine when called upon.  Another BCSSSD colleague, Carol Raggi, who works as a healthcare professional (HCP) in the New Bridges Autism Continuum, is also in the training process to be able to provide the same services.  Teresa Mantone, BCSSSD school nurse at Brownstone, spends most Saturdays volunteering at the New Bridge Medical Center administering vaccines.

Roseanne Rowe, the school nurse for the Lumberton Campus of Burlington County Special Services School District smiles behind her protective gear while posing for a photo.

“I help because I can,” said Roseanne Rowe, the school nurse for the Lumberton Campus of Burlington County Special Services School District.  Located at the other end of the state, Burlington County didn’t see the same spike in cases that Bergen did at the onset of the pandemic, but that district’s nurses felt an equally strong pull toward service.

“I was not nervous, because I really am my mother’s daughter; she was a World War II flight nurse,” said Rowe.  “I always knew I wanted to be a nurse, because I love helping people.  Many school nurses started out in hospitals, working ERs or floor rotations, so we have a lot of experience that we often want to share, especially in a situation like this.”

Rowe is also a member of the Medical Reserve Corp and helped with testing, along with Connie Garrano and Donna Colella, two school nurse colleagues who helped with contact tracing.  Much like the Bergen County nurses, these Burlington County nurses were surrounded by other school nurses who also volunteered on the frontlines.

“We’ve learned so much this past year,” said Rowe.  “From volunteering to working in the schools, we’ve just increased our knowledge in incredible ways.  All of our nurses here took contract tracing courses through the CDC and Johns Hopkins, and we’ve just learned so much about infectious diseases, communication and documentation.”

In addition to caring for sick students and staff members, school nurses are also responsible for helping keep them healthy – a role that took precedent when planning to safely reopen the schools, especially given the particularly vulnerable population they work with.

“This is probably the most important part of my job,” said Garrano.  “There is information from many state, federal and local agencies flooding our inboxes. It’s a full-time job to sort out what our school is able to implement and utilize and we need to take it one step further to assimilate to a population with special needs.”

“This pandemic has helped shine a new light on school nurses,” said Christina Boucot, who is the nurse for Gloucester County Special Services School District’s Bankbridge Development Center and was instrumental in putting together the plan to safely bring students and staff back into classrooms.  “My day-to-day functions have changed, too.  I’m not just responsible for sick children, but I’m actively involved in contact tracing for the students and staff in our district and work closely with our superintendent and our principals to make sure we are updated with the latest information on the virus and its treatment.”

Boucot also works at the Gloucester County mega site administering vaccines, which she describes as rewarding. “I know I’m actively doing my part to help bring this pandemic to a close and return the world back to some normalcy. Last weekend, I was able to administer my 92-year-old mother-in-law’s first vaccine. It was a very special moment.”

With teachers now a priority group to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in New Jersey, school nurses are relieved and optimistic this will help protect not just their co-workers, but students, their families and their communities. School nurses, inside and outside of the special services school community, have also been a trusted voice when it comes to sharing accurate information about COVID and the vaccine.

“We have a good relationship with our school families, and they trust us,” said Rowe. “That relationship is so important, and it’s one we don’t take for granted. Sharing accurate and timely information about COVID and how to stay safe are all part of our jobs.”

“Our nurses and medical support staff are heroes in our schools and our communities,” said Dr. Howard Lerner, Superintendent of Bergen County SSSD and Chair of the NJ Joint Council. “They have always been critically important in a special services school setting, but the pandemic has elevated their responsibilities and they’ve risen to the challenge to keep us all safe. The fact that they stepped up to help their communities at a time when we were all staying home just further speaks to the incredible compassion they exhibit, always putting others before themselves. We are so lucky to have them on our teams.”