IUSD Nurses are Unsung Heroes in Fight Against COVID

IUSD School Nurses

As Orange County continues to implement “Operation Independence,” with the goal of distributing COVID-19 vaccines countywide, there are some unsung heroes working tirelessly behind the scenes to make this vital public health initiative a reality.  Whether it is a vaccination supersite or a late-night phone call, providing COVID-19 resources and supports, there is a dedicated group of nurses, volunteers and other health staff providing services with an outpouring of skill and the compassion.    

In some cases, for Irvine Unified School District families and staff, the faces at those vaccination sites and the voices on the phone are familiar; they are our nurses.  Six IUSD nurses, working beyond their normal hours to provide community COVID-19 support at clinics or through after-hours availability, the latter in support of IUSD through the county’s Department of Education as on-call nurses, part of the county’s COVID-19 Schools Response Team.

At a time, when the ramp-up of vaccinations nationwide has increased, these dedicated health professionals are providing medical support where they are needed most and making an immeasurable difference in helping to prevent and limit the spread of COVID-19 in our schools and in our community.  In addition to vaccine supply, it is equally important to have medical staff to give the shots and to answer questions about COVID-19.

“They are interwoven in all the pieces that are bringing us together in these times,” says Tammy Blakely, Executive Director, Student Support Services. She oversees the District’s Health Services.

These names stand out:

Shadlie Kensrue of Northwood High School, supporting sites near Disneyland and at Soka University in Aliso Viejo, where thousands of vaccines are administered daily.

Daniella Gorman of Plaza Vista and Vista Verde K-8, at Hoag Hospital Irvine and Hoag Hospital Newport Beach.

Linda Mirshafiee of Woodbridge High School, at Hoag Hospital.

Claudette Ahern of Cypress Village and Santiago Hills Elementary Schools, at Soka as well as after-hours support to IUSD for COVID response through the county Department of Education.

Azita Ghaderifard of University High School, supporting the Orange County Department of Education with their clinics.

Jennifer Allen of Northwood Elementary and Sierra Vista Middle School, who provides after-hours support to IUSD for COVID response through the county Department of Education.

They spend additional time on top of their critical, everyday workdays at their respective school sites. But as IUSD’s Blakely points out, the pandemic is a 24-hour cycle; there is no time out. “They are really putting themselves in the forefront of leadership and nursing support,” she says.

Claudette Ahern at the time of this interview was preparing to work her first weekend at a vaccine site, at Soka, and expected to be administering shots. She and Jennifer Allen work together in after-hours response coordinated through the Orange County Department of Education, assigned primarily to IUSD.

As a former public health nurse, and as among those who have deeply felt personal loss among the more than 450,000 COVID deaths in the United States, Ahern has a unique perspective.

“COVID has taken away what was normal, and impacted our social, physical and mental health, psychologically and economically at every level,” she says. “That is a national disaster in how it has affected us in every way.”

Her drive is sewn in the personal sorrow of losing two family members to COVID as well as the suicide of a person close to her family. “It became my purpose to keep this from happening to someone else.” 

Part of that message is the ongoing advice to IUSD families to practice the hygiene of wearing a mask, keeping social distance, and washing hands. She reminds everyone to stay home if sick and quarantine. There are District and county resources at hand for mental health support.

Along with colleague Ahern, Jennifer Allen has several busy, after-hours calls to make and to receive from IUSD’s families and staff, including principals. “Our main role is to help support our administrators and schools and the whole district after hours,” she says. “COVID doesn’t take a break. Oftentimes we get calls and work through those cases to quarantine, as well as contact tracing to provide accurate information. That involves working those cases at night, to call families and update them before the next school day.”

And those hours can be 4-9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Allen believes that the effort of all IUSD’s health services staff has decreased the opportunity for COVID transmission. That is a remarkable success as the district, with classes beginning on-campus last September 24, is one of the few in the state with in-person instruction.

And while nurses have always instinctively been viewed as indispensable to the health of a campus and a district, that skillset and compassion have been playing out in real time, front and center, every day.

“We didn’t learn anything about COVID in nursing school, but we have the medical background,” says Allen.

For Shadlie Kensrue of Northwood High School, she deeply feels the shared emotions of the vaccinations. She recalls waiting for hours, as a front-line employee, to get her vaccine at the Orange County Fire Authority site. "It was very clear that they needed help,” she says. She left some business cards and now usually has one 10-hour shift per weekend at either the site near Disneyland or at Soka. Some 6,000-8,000 doses are administered daily at Disney, as many as 2,500 daily at Soka.

Kensrue knows that each shot means one more tiny step forward.

“What’s been great is the shared elation not only by the person receiving the vaccine but everyone working there. It feels like we are in this together; it feels so collective. We have all met in this special moment that may help us get back to the things we love. It is very, very exciting.”

Daniella Gorman has been working clinics, first for front-line medical staff and now for the community at large, ages 65 and older, at Hoag Hospital Irvine and Hoag Hospital Newport Beach. The weekdays become long as she goes from campus to one of the sites to administer vaccines until 8:30 p.m.

“You have a renewed sense of hope and gratitude,” Gorman explains. “It makes it easier to do that. We will work a 10-hour day here, easily, along with work that we take home, and then work another shift at a hospital. But it is very rewarding, so it makes long days worth it.”

Gorman may be most proud of the entire health services staff districtwide. It is a sentiment shared by the district’s Blakely.

“I just beam,” Blakely says of all staff who are crucial each day to the healthful success of each campus.

“We appreciate the hard work and dedication of site teams that include administrators, nurses, health assistants and District health services staff working very closely together to support students, staff and parents during this time.

“It fills me with a sense of pride.”