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From nurse to occupier

Profile of Eileen Duffey-Bernt, Notebook member

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Three years ago, when Eileen Duffey-Bernt started as a school nurse at the Academy at Palumbo, she noticed a bundle of newspapers in the school’s breezeway. She started checking out the Notebook.

"Every few months, a stack of newspapers would arrive," she explained. As turmoil in the District mounted, she added, "I really started keeping up with it."

Last year, when she realized she was continually checking the website, she decided she should become a member. Duffey-Bernt said she knew it was a nonprofit and wanted to support "the fine people who work there."

Today, Duffey-Bernt is still reading the Notebook, and it’s a lot more personal. She has been making news through her involvement with Occupy 440 – a weekly Wednesday protest on the steps of the District building, where teachers, parents, students, and education advocates rally against budget cuts. It started last December when the District eliminated 47 nursing positions.

"We have lost roughly 100 nurses in the past year," explained Duffey-Bernt.

While she relies on all the Notebook‘s coverage, the topic closest to her heart now is the budget situation and its impact on staff and students.

"I am only here two days a week, [and as a result] kids stop counting on me to be here. As a nurse, you really know the kids from the stories, but I don’t know the stories anymore."

Duffey-Bernt said that the District has a backup plan to compensate if a nurse isn’t there – a thick binder with directives on what teachers and principals can do if students need medical care – but said this hardly takes the place of a practitioner.

"So, we started rallying," she said.

She and Eileen DiFranco, another nurse, recruited advocates and gathered one Wednesday at District headquarters, declaring that they would protest weekly.

Duffey-Bernt has always been swift to act when recognizing a need for change. After earning a sociology degree from St. Joseph’s University, she began teaching 6th grade at a Catholic school in North Philadelphia. She soon realized her training was inadequate.

"I said, ‘If I am going to stick with this, I really need to go back to school,’" she said.

After taking education courses, she taught for two years, then pursued a nursing degree at Drexel – still planning to work with Philadelphia children.

For the past 30 years Duffey-Bernt has worked as a pediatric nurse at Children’s Hospital, the University of Pennsylvania, and a variety of District schools, including Palumbo.

There, resources are low. Duffey-Bernt has spent her own money decorating her office so that students feel comfortable. She "loves the job" and said she will continue to fight for it and the positions of others affected by the budget cuts. The weekly protests are becoming more diverse, she said.

"I think it is going to grow to be more than a school nurse issue," she said. "We are hoping our rallies will grow."

And she is confident that the Notebook will be there to capture it.