COVID fighter

Merriam-Webster defines a most valuable player as “the player who contributes the most to his or her team’s success.”

In Lynnfield, one can make a strong case that COVID Nurse Liaison Toni Rebelo is the town’s MVP, hands down.

“Lynnfield has had an incredible team working together throughout this pandemic, but Toni Rebelo in my book, may be our MVP,” said Select Board Chair Dick Dalton. “She has managed every aspect of how the town and schools have responded to COVID-19 and has done so with an incredible amount of expertise and skill. The work she has done in the schools has been vital.”

Rebelo had been working as a part-time nurse in the district when she was watching a School Committee meeting and learned that the town was creating a COVID nurse-liaison position.

“I thought it was interesting as I knew this person would play a significant role with the Health Department and Emergency Management Team,” Rebelo said. “I had already established relationships with families so I thought it would be a good place for me to really help.”

Rebelo reached out to a friend who had seen the job posting. The friend mentioned Rebelo as a possible candidate to Huckleberry Hill School Principal Melissa Wyland. She encouraged Rebelo to apply.

Superintendent of Schools Kristen Vogel said the decision to hire Rebelo was a no-brainer.

“Glenn and I interviewed a couple of candidates and it was evident immediately that Toni was the person we wanted,” said Vogel. “We never could have anticipated how essential she would be to our district and town to navigate all of the mitigation strategies, testing, contact tracing and reaching out to families.”

Rebelo said she had no idea what she was in for.

“I remember getting the DESE protocols and guidance and thought, ‘Wow, there are going to be some serious challenges.’ It was only then I realized the magnitude of what we were all facing. We had no playbook; this was new to everyone.

“One thing I did know was we had to make decisions based on facts and science and not on emotions,” Rebelo said. “We made it a point to base all decisions on the data.”

As the parent of three children, the Melrose native understood what people were feeling as the pandemic ramped up and schools were struggling to remain open.

“It was an emotional time for all of us, but we needed to stay focused,” she said. “We knew that kids needed to be in school so that was always the No. 1 goal.”

Rebelo said she will never forget the weekend when the middle school hosted its first vaccination clinic for children ages 5-11. More than 550 children rolled up their sleeves and got their first doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

“That definitely had to be one of the highlights of the last year and a half,” Rebelo said. “The children knew how important it was to get their shots. There was genuine excitement in the air. That age group had gone through so much, but we saw their strength and resiliency. I can’t think of anything more satisfying than those clinics, as we were able to give them the normalcy and freedom they had not had.”

The effort hasn’t been easy at times with parents — at times — challenging many COVID policies and guidelines. Through it all — and at times there were contentious confrontations — Rebelo remained the voice of reason, saying it’s important to try to see where people are coming from.

“Parents are speaking for themselves and while we may not agree with the process, the commonality is we all want the best for our children,” Rebelo said. “We have different ways of getting there but we must remain focused on the data that keeps us honest. The reality is that the vaccines and masks are what will get us through to the end. We can’t let emotions get in the way. We must do what’s best for the group. That’s what public health is all about.”

Town Administrator Rob Dolan said there have been many people who have gone “above and beyond” battling through the pandemic. He commended the efforts of Rebelo and Davis, who he described as MVP-worthy. But when it comes to the schools, Rebelo is in a league of her own, a true “citizen hero” whose positive energy is “contagious.

“Under her direction, in an almost impossible environment of ever-changing rules set by every level of government, it has been Toni’s compassionate and pragmatic style that not only has kept our community safe but reopened Lynnfield schools faster than most,” Dolan said. “That kept youth sports and school athletics running. She used her medical expertise as a nurse practitioner to aid educators, parents and students during this pandemic.”

Davis said Rebelo has been an “amazing” addition to the town’s Emergency Management Team who possesses a “wealth” of medical knowledge and “outstanding” organizational skills.

While it was unclear at the time the position was created how the position would evolve, Davis knew it was critical to put a process in place to connect the schools, Board of Health and EMT core-management team.

“From the moment that Kristen and I interviewed her it was obvious that Toni would be a great fit for our vision of a liaison,” Davis said. “I have no doubt that having Toni in her role as liaison kept countless children in school due to her attention to detail through contact tracing and being one of the first school districts to have a test-and-stay program up and running. Navigating the ever-changing guidance from the CDC as well as the DPH was a constant challenge.”

Vogel echoed Davis’ sentiments, saying Rebelo is “truly a team player.

“I do not know how we would have been able to manage without Toni on our team,” said Vogel. “She always makes decisions that keep the safety and health of our students, staff and families at the forefront.”

Last fall, Rebelo was honored with the School Committee’s Dorothy Presser Award. The award is reserved for a district employee who goes above and beyond in his or her commitment to education.

School Committee Vice Chair Stacy Dahlstedt said Rebelo touched every level from pre-K to 12 in her management of close contacts and tracing, cases and travel restrictions.

“Every principal spoke to her every day; she was the voice of reason and understanding in a tumultuous time,” Dahlstedt said. “Her guidance was invaluable.”

Always quick to deflect attention away from herself, Rebelo credited the entire community.

“Everybody went above and beyond for our children,” said Rebelo. “None of what I did would have been able to have been accomplished if it wasn’t for every person’s piece of that puzzle.”

Rebelo is hoping that September will “bring us back to pre-COVID days.

“Science has made great strides and with the vaccines available to everyone by then, we are peeling off all those layers toward normalcy,” she said. “The past two years have been a sacrifice for everyone so my hope is by then we’ll come out in a better place.”

A class act through and through, Rebelo continues to express her gratitude for being a part of Lynnfield’s team.

“I am incredibly grateful to be a part of this team,” she said. “We had one goal and we worked to achieve that goal together. That’s why we are Lynnfield and where we are today. Fighting this battle has been a group effort from the beginning. I can’t say enough about how this team has worked together.”