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School Nurses Offer a Dose of Good Health

Wednesday, May 2, 2018  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS


Some people might think that employing a nurse on a school campus is an extravagant expense. With data showing growing health issues among young people – from allergies to diabetes to asthma – and the valuable services that nurses can provide, many school leaders would scarcely consider eliminating the job from their staff. 


While nurses certainly can attend to students’ common complaints such as sore throats, congestion, and the occasional insect bite, they often help to manage students’ chronic health issues. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 8.6% of children in the U.S. have asthma. One in 13 children has a food allergy, according to Food Allergy Research & Education. With those concerns as well as cases of juvenile diabetes, obesity, and epilepsy among school-age children, nurses can experience a full day of patients nearly every day. That does not even include injuries occurring at recess, in P.E. class, or in after-school sports. 


The National Association of School Nurses suggests that schools employ one nurse per 750 students, but more than 30% of public schools employ a nurse only part-time. Figures are quite a bit higher in independent schools, based on information from Magnus Health, which provides student health record software to independent schools. In 2014, 89% of schools reported employing a nurse, either full-time or part-time. Of those, 36% of schools have more than one nurse on staff, and 23.8% have a full- or part-time doctor. Of the respondents with a full-time or part-time doctor on staff, 85% take boarding students.  


At some schools, the nurse may be able to assist with light administrative duties but many also teach or coordinate wellness programs on campus in addition to treating patients. At The New Community School in Richmond, VA, Nurse Rhonda Chambers developed the health curriculum and teaches classes; she works from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM in order to be present for home athletic practices and games. Should a medical issue arise before 10:00 AM, office staff handle it. 


Chambers has sports medicine experience and frequently attends to students who need assistance, such as to have an ankle wrapped, prior to a game. “She also has become well versed in concussion protocol,” said Laura Fields, executive assistant. “She has helped both our students and opponents during games.” 


She does not typically accompany groups on field trips, but Chambers has supported teacher chaperones by providing first aid training, including how to administer an epipen and how to manage medicines for students who require daily prescription medicines.  


In addition to addressing all the common ailments (cough, sore throat, etc.) that students present during the school day, school nurses can often speak to students more in-depth about their issues. Did they eat enough breakfast? Are they nervous about a test? Sometimes students just need a break from the classroom to regroup for a few minutes and then return to class. Of course, in the case of a fever or a real illness, the nurse will contact a parent but in many cases, taking the break for a moment is enough to enable a student to finish the school day, thus reducing absenteeism. 


At Notre Dame Academy in Duluth, GA, the school’s full-time Nurse Dahlia McFarlane has “a revolving door all day,” said Kelly Pizzarelli, executive assistant to the head of school. She attends to injuries and illnesses and is prepared for any crisis. McFarlane has even assisted children with seizures on several occasions. 


“Anything can happen with kids and it’s really safer to have a nurse on staff,” Pizzarelli said. “It’s a godsend.” 


The school employs an athletic trainer so McFarlane typically is not involved with athletics, but she has organized CPR training for staff with Emory Health Care. At one time, the school nurse was able to assist with some registrar duties but as the school population has grown in recent years, that arrangement was no longer feasible. 


A challenge that some schools have experienced with hiring a school nurse is just that – hiring the right person. School salaries may or may not be able to compete with some medical offices, but there are many benefits to working in schools. “A great school nurse is someone who wants to be in a teaching atmosphere and be able to do some teaching,” Fields said. “It is also someone who wants to be part of a community and be a resource to families.” 


That teaching role appeals to a lot of health care workers. At Randolph School in Huntsville, AL, Nurse Deb Smith and Director of Strength & Conditioning Shawn Gaunt hosted a Facebook live video last year called "Healthy Kids, Healthy Schools." Their wellness segment addressed questions such as, when is a stomachache just a stomachache? What should you eat before a morning workout? What's a healthy lifestyle? The video earned more than 1,000 views and also served as a tribute to 19-year employee “Nurse Deb.” 


School nurses also can enjoy a consistent schedule, school holidays, summer breaks, reduced paperwork (as compared with doctors’ offices), and a certain amount of autonomy in their role. For many, that is a welcome break from the stress of working in a hospital or enduring long hours over a holiday break. Many nurses also have a heart for - and may be trained for - pediatric care. 


The benefits that an on-campus nurse can provide at a school, from health education to reducing absenteeism among students to watching over students with chronic health concerns, can impact daily school operations in the most positive ways. Office staff are able to work more efficiently without doing double-duty in the school clinic, and teachers and parents can be assured that a qualified professional is managing illnesses and injuries and contributing to the smooth operations that every school hopes for each day. 

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