When parents send their children off to school every morning, they expect the school’s faculty will keep their child safe. This includes teachers, administrators, and of course, school nurses in the case of a medical emergency. Unfortunately, there is not always a school nurse on school premises. There is a nationwide shortage of school nurses in the U.S., a growing crisis that is putting kids’ lives at risk.
Only three out of five schools across the country have full-time school nurses, which means school administrators and teachers are often forced to step in and help with little to no medical training.
The Roles of a School Nurse
Over the years, school nurses have taken on more roles and responsibilities with caring for students with chronic illnesses, disabilities, mental health conditions, and more. Nurse.org tells us the daily tasks of school nurses include “providing tube feedings, catheterization, and tracheostomy care”. Gone are the days of treating simple bumps and bruises.
School nurses are also tasked with working with both the K-12 school and the community to develop, organize, and launch programs to help with school bullying, physical and mental health awareness, sex education, and substance abuse. Mental health is a highly discussed topic for young adults and teens as there has been an increase in the number of students suffering from mental health conditions, especially those who are on high alert due to active shooter incidents and other school safety threats.
School nurses are on the lookout for symptoms that may mean a student should be referred to a specialized physician or healthcare provider. NEA Today explains, “School nursing today isn’t just patient care. Every week, (school nurses) spend days working to develop accommodations for medical 504 plans, as well as all the individualized health plans that are developed for kids with leukemia, cancer, seizures, and other chronic diseases.” This is on top of conducting vision and hearing screenings for every student, and more.
In Oakland, California, there are 37,000 students in public schools and just 22 school nurses. “It’s challenging. It’s nerve-wracking,” says Oakland school nurse Liz Hurt. “Nurses are going to work and they’re afraid. They’re just praying to get to Friday with nothing bad happening!” The average nurse case load in Oakland is about 1,750 students, which is 1,000 more than the minimum recommendation. In Oakland specifically, 75% of students are living below the poverty line with many living in homeless encampments. “We’re an urban district,” explains Hurt. “The incidence rate of everything—all pathology—is much greater here… Our asthma rate is higher. Our Type 1 diabetes is very high and growing. Lots of severe allergies. And we also have families who move here for the great medical care and climate for sickle-cell disease.”
The increase in amount of responsibilities coupled with the decrease in school nurses available to do the job is proving to be detrimental to K-12 schools and districts across the country.
How the School Nurse Shortage Impacts Student Health
Student health and student safety concerns are at an all-time high due to the extreme lack of school nursing professionals in the United States.
In Philadelphia, a young third grader died at school as classes were changing. He was feeling ill and suddenly collapsed and was unable to be revived. That fateful day there was no school nurse working, which according to at least one parent who was spoken to, a nurse not being present at the school has been an ongoing issue.
Back in October, 9-year-old Hasoun collapsed in the school cafeteria and was then rushed to the hospital where he later was pronounced dead. Again, there was no school nurse at school that day. His mother has spoken out and said, “They failed him all ways. Like they wasn't there to help him," Pressley said. "He was my only son. … there weren't nobody there to help him. Nothing.”
A young 12-year-old student died following an asthma attack that started at school. She had gone to a teacher as there was not a school nurse present that day, who told her to stay calm. When the young girl arrived home her father immediately gave her medication and rushed her to the hospital. She collapsed in the car and later died in the hospital.
Three heartbreaking stories with one similarity: there was no on-staff school nurse. With nearly 25% of all young children suffering from some type of chronic illness, such as asthma or diabetes, having trained school nursing professionals is a necessity to ensure good student health.
School Nurse Shortage: What’s Being Done
Some K-12 school districts are having trouble employing school nurses and are turning to school-based health clinics that are run by local hospitals. Although this is one solution, it is a costly one. According to Nurse.org, parents would have to pay out-of-pocket or run the clinic visit through their insurance.
Other schools are turning to technology to help. Panic button applications are a useful tool for school teachers and administrators as they notify first responders quickly and efficiently in medical emergencies.
Having technology in place can instill confidence from parents and guardians, as well as ensure student health and safety.
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