School Nurses: What Don’t They Do?

Let us introduce you to the school nurse, the lynchpin of healthy schools. Their impact on individual students is borne out of their capacity to think broadly and act nimbly. They link students to community resources and advocate for their health. There is a common misconception that the job is all Band-Aids, bruises, and doctor’s notes.

Key takeaways:
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    School nurses are leaders in promoting health equity for students. They connect students to resources and advocate for students with medical needs to learn in an accommodating environment.
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    There is a common misconception that school nurses only provide first aid, but their scope is broad and bears many complex responsibilities.
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    School nurses can support you by helping your child access virtual medical appointments from school, manage short-term health conditions, and connect you to community resources when needed.

However, they are tasked with a wide range of responsibilities. The student-to-school nurse ratio is high, but they are an excellent resource and can make a big difference in supporting your child at school.

What do school nurses do?

School nurses bore huge responsibility during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a time of overwhelming novelty, they developed new prevention control policies, testing measures, and contact tracing. However, apart from managing COVID-19 in schools, here are a few of their other roles:

Vision and hearing screenings

Most states require school-based vision and hearing screenings at the elementary level. While screening methods aren’t standardized, school nurses may be the first to identify a student’s vision or hearing issues.

Provide safe spaces

Students frequently visit the school nurse’s office for stomach aches. While some are due to chronic conditions, stomach aches are often signs of anxiety, depression, dysregulation, or trouble at home. After all, your gut is a brain. School nurses help students identify emotions and connect them to a school counselor or other support networks. The nurse’s office can be a refuge for these kids.

Chronic disease management

Kids are coming to school with more complex health needs than ever before. Since 1960, rates of chronic conditions in kids have increased by 400%. With increased complexity comes the need for increased technology and monitoring to keep them safe at school. Furthermore, health disparities due to structural racism affect certain populations more than others.

For example, American Indian and Alaska Native students have a 25% higher rate of asthma than white students. Hispanic and Black students experience more hospitalizations related to asthma than white students with asthma. School nurses do more than simply administer medications. They may also provide tube feedings for medically complex children, note asthma triggers in the school environment, or troubleshoot insulin pumps or continuous glucose monitors for students with diabetes. School nurses also collaborate with teachers to help them understand how their students’ medical conditions impact their time in the classroom. This may even include writing health plans for students with chronic medical conditions.

Health promotion

At its core, school nursing aims to help kids be healthier so they can learn better. Whether managing immunization data, teaching elementary school students about handwashing, or advising parents when their child can return to school after acute illness, school nurses are the point person for all things health-related at school.

Three ways school nurses can help you

According to the CDC, the standard school nurse staffing model is one nurse for every 750 students, a ratio that is not supported by research. This means that school nurses split their time between multiple schools and may not be present every day of the week. However, if your child’s school does have a full or part-time dedicated nurse, here are three ways they can be a resource to you:

1. Telemedicine appointments

COVID-19 ushered in a wave of new telemedicine use, which is generally more convenient and easier to access. Instead of signing your child out of school for an appointment, consider asking the school nurse to facilitate your child’s telemedicine appointment by sharing the appointment link and helping your child log on. You can decide if you want them to be present in the visit so they are more aware of your child’s needs or if you just want them to provide a private, quiet space for your child to attend the appointment. However, a parent or guardian must fill out a release of information so their doctor’s office can communicate with the school nurse.

2. Short-term health conditions

Maybe your child doesn't have a chronic condition like asthma or diabetes, but they are living with a long-lasting acute condition. Tell your child’s school nurse about their condition. Whether your child is chronically constipated and needs to use the bathroom every two hours, recently had a concussion and may need rest breaks throughout the day, or broke their leg and need assistance with the school elevator — inform your school nurse. They can be your eyes and ears to assist your child while at school. However, they aren’t aware of what you don’t tell them.

3. Connection during transitional times

School nurses are familiar with their community’s resources. For instance, suppose your family is struggling to access food, changed insurance and lost eligibility for a state program, or is enduring a traumatic situation at home. In situations like that, school nurses can help connect your child and family to resources to support your family in challenging times.

School nurses are at the intersection of health and education. Healthy kids learn better. As the first point of contact for health issues at school, school nurses are an asset to students for their ability to put medical needs into an educational context. School nurses can help recognize barriers students face and work with them to support their educational access.

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