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Retirees 2024: Nurse coordinator spent 23 years caring for kids

Kathy Knawa wore a nurse’s uniform for 18 years before transitioning into a new specialty area — school nursing. Knawa is retiring after 23 years as coordinator of District 161 nursing services.

Kathy Knawa. (Marilyn Thomas/H-F Chronicle)

“I worked with children, and I love education. I love teaching and just being able to teach children and others about health concerns. I love working with kids, so school nursing is like the best of all worlds. You’re able to work with the children, you can educate the staff and educate the child and the parents,” she said.

Knawa has coordinated care with five nurses stationed in the district’s schools. She describes her team as a wonderful group of professionals “which has helped me do my job. I’m grateful for the opportunity.”
Knawa came to District 161 with a background in pediatrics and public health. She enjoyed the work but realized “you have your patient for such a short time, whether it’s a child newly diagnosed with diabetes or asthma, and you wonder how they did.”

School nursing, on the other hand, has given her a chance “to care for them and be on the journey with them.”

The care Knawa provided wasn’t limited to the children in the building. Adults and visitors in the buildings have emergencies, too. Knawa found school nursing “covers every area of nursing, it’s emergency, it’s med-surg, it’s O-B, Peds, trauma. It all comes together.”

For her, one of the highlights has been educating staff and students. While it’s never ending, it really is necessary. It allowed Knawa to go through the basics, such as first aid, CPR, dealing with concussions and expand into other areas.

Her workshops for staff were meant to help them “know what to look for and how to manage. We’d go over action plans, being aware of diabetes, asthma, seizures specific needs, or even general topics like hand washing and what they can do,” she said. “A lot of times, they’ll tell their teacher first that they have a diagnosis, so we need to maintain that kind of communication between the teacher and the nurse.”

And then, there are the special needs, like what the staff dealt with during the COVID-19 pandemic when guidance changed sometimes daily. Knawa said she relied on the Cook County Public Health Department for updates.

“COVID, that was a challenge definitely. We had to navigate the waters of COVID which were everchanging from the health department. We had to make sure the students stayed safe and our staff could stay safe and they knew how to protect themselves and their families,” she recalled.

District 161 took part in the SHIELD testing program “and I felt like we were better off because of it, because we were able to identify (COVID) cases,” Knawa said.

School nurses have their own support network through the Illinois Association of School Nurses and the National Association of School Nurses. Even though Knawa has a master’s in health administration and a professional educator license in school nursing and national certification in school nursing, she said the statewide and national meetings gave her a chance to learn best practices from others.

“Working in schools, unlike a health setting where the whole setting is full of health professionals, in education there’s (a limited) number and we lean on each other for ideas and recommendations, to cast that net and know what best practices nurses are doing in certain situations in their districts,” she said.

She also served as president of the Lake Shore-Calumet Region division of the Illinois Association of School Nurses.

“I’ve worked with fabulous people, whether its nurses, administrators, teachers, staff. I’m so grateful to have partnered with them,” Knawa said.

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