COVID-19 adds to job stress of Lab nurses


Clare McRoberts

Lori Waterstraat, a Laboratory Schools nurse, assists a student in her office. The pandemic has changed the outlook of Ms. Waterstraat and many other nurses. She said, “I never understood the importance of kids being in school to learn and having a community that supports them and loves them, like I do now.”

Clare McRoberts, Reporter

At the beginning of winter break in December, students headed off on trips or settled in at home for much-needed rest. But for Lab’s nurses, the break was anything but tranquil. As the omicron coronavirus wave hit, the nurses were taking calls from anxious families reporting new cases. They were consulting with administrators and contact tracers. All the while, they were preparing new protocols to reopen school when break was over.

Lab nurses have been on the frontlines of Lab’s efforts to contain outbreaks of the virus and to keep families safe. They say their experiences were rewarding, but difficult and highly stressful — especially over winter break.

“We were working around the clock in regards to logging in positive cases, working with contact tracing teams, finding out any close contacts,” Mary Toledo-Treviño, a U-High nurse, recalled when Lab’s nursing team was rushing to track rising cases as they simultaneously prepared for new, weekly all-school testing. 

Ms. Toledo-Treviño described that period of work as vitally important, but also exhausting.

She said, “I’m going to have to say — out of these past few years, December through January was really pretty tough.”

Lab nurses are hardly alone. During the pandemic, doctors and nurses around the world have reported high levels of stress and exhaustion with the flood of patients to care for. One survey of critical-care  nurses last year found that 66% of them said they were considering retirement. Another survey shows that one out of every five health care workers has quit their jobs since the coronavirus first emerged in 2020.  

In the earliest days of the pandemic, the spring of 2020, Lab’s nurses attended meetings to keep up with the latest public health guidance for schools. Over the months that followed, they worked on answering questions from parents, keeping up with guidelines and helping teachers and families navigate the shifting circumstances.

Lori Waterstraat, who has worked as a nurse at Lab for the last five years, said her experience during the pandemic included confronting an array of changing and conflicting emotions.

“I felt a mixture of overwhelmed, pulled from my family, but proud of the work that we were doing,” Ms. Waterstraat said. “Like all things that are hard, it felt exciting, but was ultimately exhausting.”

We’ve all had moments of feeling really stressed out, but what really keeps us going is our love for the students and our love for our roles

— Mary Toledo-Treviño

Still, Lab nurses said the intensity of the pandemic also brought a renewed sense of mission and purpose.

“When I talk about it in the future, it’ll be something that I look back on, and that I’m very proud of,” Ms. Waterstraat said.

Ms. Toledo-Treviño, a nurse at Lab for eight years, said, “We’ve all had moments of feeling really stressed out, but what really keeps us going is our love for the students and our love for our roles.”

Much has changed since that chaotic winter break. By March, coronavirus cases across the country fell dramatically and guidelines shifted, as many people gained hope that life was returning to normal. But in recent days, cases nationally have begun to rise again, driven by new sub variants of omicron. 

“In this very moment, we’re starting to see a lot more cases,” Ms. Waterstraat said. “Unfortunately, that has led to a feeling of despair for me.”