Before March of 2020, Deanna Hess’s job was certainly important, but it was also pretty straightforward. As the Chair of Nursing Services for the Mt. Lebanon School District, she oversaw the health offices of all the district’s schools, making sure they were properly staffed and that good systems were in place for managing sick kids and student medications.
And then the COVID pandemic happened, and Hess’s job as she knew it basically imploded. In its place grew a new and ever-changing list of responsibilities, as Hess took a key role in the district’s mission to keep our kids both healthy and educated as the virus completely transformed day-to-day life in America.
“You not only have math, history, science, but you also have music and art,” Hess said, remembering the early challenges facing the district when students moved to remote learning in the spring of 2020. “And everyone learns differently. So we had to really look to see: How can we fit everybody in and make them safe? To have them learn? To have them do extracurricular things that we can also do safely?”
She kept in touch with neighboring school districts and closely followed the ever-evolving guidelines handed down by the CDC, as well as the state and county health departments. She says the work over the summer of 2020 was “constant” as the district planned to make both at-home and in-school learning options available for the upcoming school year. Hess and school administrators worked tirelessly to create contact-tracing protocols, which they understood would be crucial to limiting community spread once the schools opened their doors again.
“From the beginning, we knew that contact tracing was going to be a huge part of it,” Hess said. “Once we started back into school, that’s when I think it really hit us. Now we’re dealing with 6,000-plus students and families and all of our other schools. We realized this was going to be a huge part of our lives for the next year.”
When to officially reopen school doors proved to be a touchy subject for community members, who didn’t always see eye-to-eye on a reopening plan, but Hess said everyone ultimately had the same goals. “There are always going to be two sides to it, and that’s okay,” she said. “We have to listen to all the sides because every side has a different thought process. No matter what side you were on, I think people just really wanted to make sure the kids were safe, healthy and educated.”
Students did start returning to school in fall 2020 with a five-day-a-week option providing some return to complete normalcy later in the second semester. And then good news: Vaccines were coming. Just as she did with contact tracing, Hess took the lead in making sure she could get her nurses, teachers, staff and students vaccinated as quickly as possible. That evolved into organizing on-site vaccination clinics, which were eventually expanded to cover all eligible students. The clinics were an all-hands-on-deck affair; local pharmacies provided the vaccines while administrators from district superintendent Dr. Timothy Steinhauer on down worked the events.
Steinhauer recognized Hess’s integral work at a school board meeting this past spring, just as the country was starting to feel like the worst of the pandemic was finally in the rear-view mirror.
“Since the beginning of the year, Deanna’s leadership guided us through the development of COVID protocols … to manage a safe and healthy environment in our schools,” the superintendent said. “She established procedures for our contact-tracing efforts for staff and students and trained her staff and building principals in this very time-consuming but essential task. She maintained the district COVID dashboard and was relentless in finding pharmacies to support vaccine clinics in our district. Deanna and her team of nurses and nurse aides … are the reason that so many of our staff and students are vaccinated. But most remarkably, throughout this incredibly challenging year, Deanna approached every action she took with kindness, empathy, understanding and patience.”
At the time of this interview, with the previous school year just ended, Hess was already busy planning for summer school and fall 2021, understanding there was still much work to be done but also thankful that the hardest months were likely behind them.
“I don’t think there was ever a time where we didn’t think we could get through this,” she said. “There was always a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it was just a faint light. But we worked together as a team. We all were there to support each other, both emotionally and medically. That’s what allowed us to make it through.”