Mary Konopacki became a nurse following in her mom’s footsteps. Why? Because her mom is the “strongest person” she knows. After graduating from Towson University, Mary started working in the emergency department at Mercy Medical Center. 11 years of working night shift led her to look for a change, and she found herself taking on the role of School Nurse at St. Joseph School-Fullerton.

What Konopacki couldn’t have foreseen was that, in a few short years, she would be playing a critical leadership role on the school’s pandemic response team.

“Before COVID graced us with its presence, I would see roughly 20 to 40 students a day, addressing illness, injury, or mental health needs. I would review and update medical charts, files, and papers coming in from doctors and parents. I would review medication orders and ensure that those with severe medical concerns have their medications present in the school in case of an emergency,” said Konopacki.

Since COVID, her role has drastically changed.

Konopacki is now contact tracing and communicating protocols to parents that have been put into place by the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Maryland Department of Health. She attends to staff and students that present with illness. She helped to pilot a school testing program for the State of Maryland with four other private schools. A majority of her day is spent updating the school’s COVID tracker and answering phone calls and emails, oftentimes extending into all hours of the night.

But her perseverance has helped keep the students at St. Joseph School-Fullerton – including her own two daughters – in the classroom.

“I felt that [getting kids back into the classroom] was going to be a challenge, but that with a collaborative effort from staff, students, and parents, it could be done,” said Konopacki. ”I was on committees with some of the other private school nurses to come up with safe practices to implement when we returned.”

Implementing those practices included making sure that the school was equipped with the necessary disinfectants and sanitation supplies, measuring distances between desks, designing traffic flow patterns for the hallways, and educating staff and students about protocols. And yes, that’s meant being the mask police, too.

“The success of our students relies on our outstanding multidisciplinary team of faculty, which we are blessed to have Nurse Mary Konopacki, RN, BSN as part of that team,” said Chrissie Ashby, interim principal. “The health and safety of our students and staff is our first priority. Under Mary’s care, guidance, and leadership, we continue to navigate this extraordinary time together and have been able to keep our students in classrooms where they learn best.”

The Omicron surge has brought rapidly increasing challenges to the community, and Konopacki has felt the pressure both as a parent and as a school nurse. Prioritizing has become key to managing stress, as well as constant multitasking. She finds herself saying the serenity prayer multiple times per day to help ground herself and remind her to focus on the things that she can control. Even as her ‘day job’ demands increase, Konopacki has continued to pick-up shifts in the ER – as she has since graduating nursing school. Nursing is one of the things she can focus on and do to help in a pandemic situation that she cannot control.

“I must say, this has been the most stressful time as a school nurse that I have ever experienced and I know that other school nurses feel the same. It is also the hardest it has ever been working in the emergency room. We work short staffed with increasing numbers of patients, both with and without COVID. It can be very scary and intimidating,” said Konopacki.

Despite the stress, Konopacki says she’s exactly where she wants to be – and that there are some silver linings appearing around the edges of the pandemic.

“I think that families have reconnected and that if we can deal with this, as a whole, we can get through any other hurdles in life. I think that we have seen that teachers and school are so important to the development of children,” said Konopacki . “I love my job as a nurse. And although very stressful and hard at times, I wouldn’t trade it.”

Editor’s Note: This article is sponsored by St. Joseph School-Fullerton. To learn more about the school, visit their listing in our independent school directory. Images were provided by the school.