By Leslie Brown
For The Beachcomber
When Sarah Day began working as the school nurse for the Vashon Island School District a decade ago, she quickly faced her first public health crisis — an outbreak of whooping cough that placed Vashon at the epicenter in King County.
Then there was her multi-year effort to increase vaccinations rates among children on Vashon, her navigation of a measles outbreak, an AP news story about her work that ran in news sites around the world and, of course, the capstone to her 10-year stint: working to keep staff and children safe as the district faced a life-threatening global pandemic.
If you think the life of a school nurse is simple — bandaging scraped knees and taking temperatures — think again. Day, who is retiring from the district this month, puts it bluntly: “It’s been a wild ride.”
But it’s also been a remarkable ride. As Day heads into the next chapter of her life — volunteerism, travel, gardening and more – she does so with deep appreciation from teachers, parents, healthcare professionals and school district staff.
The past 15 months have put her to the test like no other. On Vashon, where the school district’s large community touches nearly everyone on the island, her role in helping to keep students and staff safe was critical, not only to the district but to the entire island, according to public health professionals. Those who worked with her on the front lines said she was invaluable.
“There have been no (virus) transmissions in the schools, and that’s a remarkable accomplishment,” said Dr. James Bristow, co-chair of the Vashon Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) and a leader in Vashon’s pandemic response. “That’s because controls were put in place that kept people safe, and those controls were put in place by Sarah and backed by the district. Absolutely, she made a difference.”
Rick Wallace, who is the manager of the Vashon Emergency Operations Center and vice president of VashonBePrepared., said Day brought an authoritative voice to the discussions. Add to that her other skills — a bilingual nurse with a background in public health and deep roots in the community — and Day became one of the trusted voices in an island-wide campaign where trust mattered.
“She’s laser-focused, but in a way that inspires confidence,” Wallace said. Half-joking, he added, “She’s Vashon Island’s Fauci.”
Teachers and district staff also said Day made a difference. “As a teacher, I felt absolutely taken care of by Sarah,” said Andy James, who teaches computer science and other courses at Vashon High School. “The hallmark of Sarah’s tenure is clear and graceful communication, which is valuable in an organization, especially during moments of crisis.”
“She really had our back through this whole thing,” added Jen Lindsay, a fifth-grade teacher at Chautauqua Elementary School. “I completely trusted her and counted on her voice of science-based advocacy.”
But it’s not been easy.
Day worked long hours through the crisis. She read voraciously, staying abreast of the evolving scientific literature about the virus. She scrambled to find the right PPE. Elizabeth Parrish, one of her colleagues, joked that Day must have experimented with 50 different kinds of face masks.
Perhaps hardest of all, Day, according to those close to the situation, sometimes had to stand up to district officials who didn’t understand the public health ramifications of the coronavirus the way she did.
“The school district has been hard, and there were times when we had significant disagreements with the district,” Bristow said. “Sarah was right there, taking a principled stand for what she believed was right, and that won the day.”
Slade McSheehy, the school district superintendent, said Day has been a resource to him as he tried to balance the district’s educational mandate with a public health crisis.
“She has been an asset and partner in that work,” he said. But he also acknowledged the challenges as the district faced what he called “tough decisions.”
“Sarah and I haven’t always agreed. But that’s OK. It’s a false sense of security if you’re working with someone who always agrees with you,” he said. “I needed someone who would push back, and Sarah did. It wasn’t always easy, but it put us in a better position.”
Day, 61, is a small-boned woman with intense blue eyes and a warm, down-to-earth manner. Those who know her well say she can be hilariously funny. When not working, she spends time with her husband, Tim Morrison, an avid cyclist who works for the City of Seattle, her two adult children – one of whom is a public librarian in Eastern Washington – and a bevy of friends and relatives. She also pours hours into her expansive garden at her home on Maury Island – a spread that includes dahlias, sweet peas, row crops, fruit trees and countless native plants.
Her garden helped her reclaim a sense of calm during the stress of the past year, she said, and she’s looking forward to more time in what she calls “my gym.” “To me, it’s paradise to be out in the garden,” she said.
Day, who volunteered in a women’s health clinic in Costa Rica as a young woman, has long been an advocate for parents and children. She began her career in public health 25 years ago as a registered nurse working in maternal-child health for Public Health – Seattle & King County. She worked in clinics and did home visits in Columbia City, White Center, Tukwila and Vashon — offering well-baby checks, nutritional advice, lactation consultation and more to low-income mothers, many of them Spanish-speaking.
It’s the kind of work that deeply appeals to her, she said — not the rapid-fire pace of a hospital, where people are often quickly discharged, but long-term care that results in relationships that can last a lifetime. When in the grocery store, she’ll often run into families she has known for years, sometimes breaking into Spanish as she catches up with them.
As the school nurse, she brought similar skills to bear, connecting families to needed resources, working to address chronic health issues and creating a reservoir of trust along the way. In interviews, several spoke about Day’s deep roots in the community and how those roots added to her effectiveness.
“She’s known some families on Vashon for many, many years and is a really trusted person,” said Parrish, a health room assistant at the school district. “So if she were to say to someone, ‘You should be getting these shots now,’ people listen.”
Amy Rutherford, a mother of two, said Day’s skill and empathy helped her family enormously 10 years ago when they discovered their daughter — now 16 — had a chronic health issue. “She’s been such a great resource for the community and the families,” Rutherford said.
But Day is quick to note that her role as school nurse also entailed tedium. When she first started at the district, students’ vaccination data were far from complete, and she spent many hours calling people, sending letters and inputting data. In the process, she made significant progress in addressing the district’s low vaccination rates, an effort boosted by the state when it ended the option for parents to exempt their children from measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations for personal or philosophical reasons.
This past year, after a concerted effort led largely by Day, Vashon finally reached herd immunity for measles, a highly contagious disease. Her work prompted an AP story in 2019 that carried the headline, “‘Hippie’ island off Seattle sees shift in low vaccine rate.” The story, with several photos of Day, ran in the Seattle Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Taiwan News and, appropriately, a Spanish-language newspaper in Guatemala.
When Day looks back over her decade as Vashon’s school nurse, what stands out for her are not the headlines or crises, but the stuff of public health — working to build collaborative teams in each of the district’s three schools, strengthening much-needed mental health services, providing support to families who struggle.
“School nurses are case managers and case coordinators,” she said.
She knows many students who are experiencing what public health professionals call “adverse childhood experiences” — poverty, trauma, homelessness, health issues — all of which put them at much higher risk as they grow older.
“Sometimes we’re just partners in the struggle. We can’t always make it better,” she said. “Families continue to struggle all the time. But it helps for them to know that we’re partners with them and that they’re not all alone.”
Day says this past year has been hard. “It took a real personal toll,” she said.
But she’ll remain a part of Vashon’s public health community. She plans to work part-time as a resource coordinator for VISD’s StudentLink. She’ll also continue to volunteer for the MRC — medical professionals who were her lifeline through the pandemic. “I couldn’t have done my job without them,” she said.
Bristow said it’s hard to see Day retire and, at the same time, completely understandable.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand the level of stress that COVID placed on decision-makers,” he said. “Sarah brought her best to it. I’m sad to see her go.”
Leslie Brown is a former editor of The Beachcomber.