Eileen Duffey-Bernt worked as a community organizer and a sixth-grade teacher in a parochial school. She studied social work, then became a nurse, first at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and then in student health at the University of Pennsylvania.

But it wasn’t until she became a Philadelphia School District nurse that Duffey-Bernt found her calling.

“I fell in love with public education and the promise for kids,” she said.

Duffey-Bernt has just been named 2021 Pennsylvania School Nurse of the Year by the National Association of School Nurses.

It’s an honor she never dreamed of when she came to the district in 1995, intrigued by the suggestion of a friend who was a Philadelphia school nurse that Duffey-Bernt take the same path. The district needs qualified people, her friend told her. The students are great.

Now the nurse at Academy at Palumbo, a magnet high school in South Philadelphia, Duffey-Bernt spent a number of years at Meredith Elementary and had shorter stints in several others schools.

And though she’s now 26 years into school nursing, Duffey-Bernt isn’t tired of the work, the challenges, or the needs of kids for whom she might be the primary medical provider.

“It’s an evolving job,” she said. “I’m not young anymore, but I don’t feel old.” (Duffey-Bernt is 65.)

Never has evolution been more of a theme than this year, when COVID-19 put school nurses on the front lines more than ever. Duffey-Bernt is still responsible for kids’ health, even though Philadelphia high schoolers have been learning virtually since March of 2020 and most will stay that way through the end of this school term.

Duffey-Bernt is often on the phone checking up on students’ medical conditions, but she’s also just as likely to be giving kids a sympathetic ear. Many young people are struggling with mental health issues caused by COVID-19 and dramatic shifts in their day-to-day routines; Duffey has been trying to help one Palumbo student get therapy, for instance, but the wheels of bureaucracy move slowly.

“This is not a kid who’s suicidal, they’re just not leaving their room,” Duffey-Bernt said. She’s not a therapist, but until services become available, she’s a lifeline for this young person, and happy to be so.

“For me professionally, I just have this sense of satisfaction,” Duffey-Bernt said. “It’s a great profession, a great calling.”

Duffey-Bernt is a pro, said Karyn Lynch, the district’s Chief of Student Support Services.

“Throughout her career at the School District of Philadelphia, Eileen has demonstrated the true meaning of advocating for children, making a lasting impact on the health and lives of our students,” Lynch said in a statement. “We are honored to have someone as skilled, knowledgeable, and passionate about her work as Nurse Eileen Duffey-Bernt.”

Duffey-Bernt was educated in Catholic schools, and though she grew up in Philadelphia, her world felt very small, centered around her Irish Catholic parish at Broad and Duncannon Sts. Working in public schools has broadened her horizons in the best way, she said.

“As the city has become so much more heterogenous, I just love that,” said Duffey-Bernt. “I feel very very strongly about the rights of kids in schools, and in public education, what we teach each other and what we learn from these young people.”

Lately, she’s learning a great deal from her foster son, a 17-year-old from Honduras who had no parents and needed a home. Duffey-Bernt’s children are grown, and she and her husband looked at their empty third floor and thought: why not?

“If you’re open and growing,” she said, “your life takes on new meaning.”

Though school nurse is still Duffey-Bernt’s primary job, over the past 10 years, she’s also found herself in a new role: educational activist. In December 2011, the Philadelphia School District laid off 47 school nurses as part of a brutal round of mid-school term budget cuts.

Duffey-Bernt found herself on the steps of the district’s administration building with a bullhorn in her hands a few days later. Her own job was safe, but many others’ weren’t. She was angry, and it was transformative.

“I’ve always been able to speak up for myself, but I was never an activist in that way. But Philly kids desperately need a nurse in every building,” she said.

In city schools, “every child is fragile,” Duffey-Bernt said that day in 2011, according to an Inquirer story. “Whether they are in kindergarten or high school, this fragility is manifested in somatic complaints — be they headaches, stomachaches, panic attacks. We listen, we calm them, we send them back better than when they arrived, ready to learn.”

These days, every Philadelphia school now has a nurse in the building, but Duffey-Bernt is still speaking out for causes she believes in — from issues of student health to racial justice work — and that won’t change, she said.

“Those of us on the ground, we have to be looking out for each other,” she said. “Sometimes, activism is required.”