As the Burnet High School nurse, Shelli Houston is a specialist in handling just about any health issue that comes through her door. It’s definitely a change from her eight years as gastroenterology nurse before taking the school position in 2019.
“I never thought I’d be a school nurse,” said Houston, who is a registered nurse. “It just wasn’t something I think I considered. But, you know, I consider myself blessed.”
Houston and her husband, Russell, moved to the Highland Lakes from the Austin area when he took a teaching and coaching job at Burnet High School. She first worked at an area hospital before accepting the school nursing position.
She’s no stranger to schools. She was a teacher for about 10 years before returning to college for a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.
When the 2019-20 school year started, she handled the typical tasks of a nurse: vision and hearing screenings, keeping up with student immunization records, and, of course, tending to sick and injured students.
“We have a lot of shop injuries because we have welding classes and those types (of classes),” Houston said. “Things like cuts or something in the eye. And, I do wellness checks on kids who aren’t feeling well.”
But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020.
“Things definitely changed,” Houston said.
Burnet Consolidated Independent School District set up COVID-19 health and safety protocols on all campuses. Before the pandemic, students who weren’t feeling well just headed to the nurse’s office. Now, teachers conduct a basic triage based on a list of COVID-like symptoms. If a student exhibits any of those symptoms, Houston sees them in a second location on campus rather than the nurse’s office.
Under district rules, if a student has COVID-19 symptoms, they are sent home.
“Before, sometimes I would send them back to class if they didn’t have a fever or it wasn’t something they needed to go home for,” Houston said. “Now, it doesn’t matter. If they have one of those symptoms, we have to send them home.
“And parents have been very understanding,” she added.
One thing that caught Houston off guard in her new job was mental health.
“What I didn’t anticipate was the mental health aspect and how many kids I’d see because of it,” she said. “A lot of kids don’t know where to go, so they come here.”
A student’s anxiety and stress often manifest in physical ways, such as rapid heart rate, jitters, trembling, and headaches, so they go to the nurse’s office.
Houston can often determine the underlying mental cause of a physical illness.
“If we’re in here and there’s nobody else, we can sit and talk it out, and I can help de-escalate things,” she said.
Houston also involves the campus counselor as well as the district’s intervention counselor if necessary.
Houston’s thankful she can help.
“I think kids think (the nurse’s office) is a safe place, and I’m glad they feel that way,” she said. “I feel like I have established a rapport with the kids who need someone to talk to. For some kids, they may not get the support at home they need, and it feels good that we can at least get them some help and support here.”
Houston admitted seeing students struggle mentally and emotionally does, at times, take a toll on her.
“But I have a good support network at home with my husband and kids,” she said.
Being a school nurse has allowed Houston to focus more on family life. The schedule fits better with her family’s, which includes her husband’s games and her freshman daughter’s volleyball matches and upcoming track-and-field meets. Her second-grade son is also active in school and sports.
While her main duty is taking care of students, Houston also helps campus staff maintain good physical and mental health. In November, Houston challenged the staff to complete a marathon in a month. They would log the miles they ran or walked on an app, and Houston tracked their efforts.
“We would encourage one another and motivate others,” she added.
Since February is American Heart Month, Houston is offering blood pressure checks to staff on Mondays, sending out heart-healthy recipes on Tuesdays, and staying after school on Wednesdays to walk or run with anyone trying to establish good habits.
And while the school nurse’s office isn’t where Houston once saw herself, it’s where she can touch hundreds of lives.
“I think God just opened this to me,” she said. “Yeah, I’d have to say again, I’m blessed.”