CHICAGO — For nearly a decade, Markuail Griggs has worked as a nurse caring for students at the LEARN Charter School Network in the Chicago area. However, after the COVID-19 shutdown in March 2020, she quickly found herself reinventing the role of a school nurse.

When COVID-19 was shutting down schools around the world, nurse Griggs found herself in unchartered territory.

“I was concerned, I became a nurse to save lives,” she said. “And no matter what setting I have, in that is my top priority.”

The Chicago LEARN Charter School nurse, she figured out early that COVID-19 wasn’t going away anytime soon. Remote learning didn’t seem like the ideal situation for the networks 11 schools and 4,000 students. Also, changes had to be made to bring kids safely back.

Working closely with state and health departments and relying on her own expertise, Griggs developed an impressive Covid safety plan. 

Gregory White, CEO of the LEARN Charter School Network said she got the clinics and testing started and started well in advance of anyone else, so the school system has been able to say open the entire year.

All the LEARN schools have been open since April of 2021. One of the first changes Griggs made was doubling the nursing staff. 

“She advocated, she made a compelling case on why we need to have more, she also helped us understand how the job of nurses were going to change,” White said.

From weekly testing for staff and students to contact tracing, to educational forums, Griggs did her best to keep the students, staff and families informed. With a 95% African American student body, Griggs says one of the biggest challenges was conveying the message of vaccine safety.

“We did get resistance, not only from our families and our students but also of our staff,” Griggs said.

LaToya Dukes is a mother of four and a staff member at LEARN School.  She says it took a little coaxing from nurse Griggs before she and her family got the vaccine because she was hesitant at first.

“With the relationship that we had, she made me comfortable with me saying ‘OK, I’m going to do this,’” Griggs said.

Educational discussions were only half the battle. Griggs said she would need to make the vaccine readily available and easy for people to get their shot. In the fall of 2021, she started hosting pop up clinics at various school sites.  

“We wanted to provide a place where they feel safe to get vaccinated but also a space they can come to every day,” she said.

To date she has held 60 vaccination clinics for students and staff.

“We have approximately 20% of students that are vaccinated but of those students that are vaccinated over 60 percent of those were vaccinated at our clinics on site,” Griggs said.

Although she has put it in quite of bit of time and effort into keeping her students safe, those close to her say the biggest reason for the schools success during these difficult times is the relationships she has built.  

Students are now back in the classroom full time, but as Covid appears to be a permanent health issue, Griggs says she now focuses on the mental health of her students and the future.

“How do we pivot back to some sort of normalcy while maintaining a safe environment and what does that look like?” she said.

Griggs also created a Covid advisory panel that meets biweekly to discuss ongoing Covid related issues. 

Markuail Griggs she is one of Chicago’s Very Own.