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The Vital Role of School Nurses
As the only medically-focused member of the school community, school nurses provide episodic care and manage acute and chronic health issues of students in our schools. They track communicable diseases and handle emergency procedures. They work with parents, medical providers and insurance companies to keep students healthy and in school.
Working alongside teachers and school administrators, the school nurse promotes healthy behaviors and provides health education to all in the school. A student’s health status is directly related to his or her ability to learn. Students with unmet health needs have a more difficult time concentrating and engaging in the educational process. The role of the school nurse addresses physical, mental, emotional, and social health needs of students while concurrently supporting their achievement in the classroom learning process.
The number of students with acute and chronic illnesses has increased dramatically over the past decade posing daunting challenges for today’s school nurses. Students who once would have been homebound are now educated beside their peers. They are entering school with increasingly complex medical conditions. Technically intricate medical equipment such as cardiac monitors, ventilators, insulin pumps, gastrostomy tubes, and urinary catheters have become common devices to support students in the school setting. Chronic conditions such as asthma, epilepsy, Type 1 Diabetes, anaphylaxis, obesity, and mental health concerns may impact the student’s ability to be in school and ready to learn. These students require emergency care plans and 504 plans in place to keep them safe in the classroom.
All these health conditions enter the school and classrooms on a daily basis. School administrators and educators are tasked with teaching and successfully preparing their students for academic achievement. The nurse helps the classroom teacher understand how a student’s health condition can impact learning. For example, a diabetic student can have high and low blood sugars during the school day. The impact of the labile blood sugar level can impede student learning. If the blood sugar levels are not within normal limits, the student is unable to concentrate on the concepts being taught. For an elementary learner, this has great implications on the understanding of reading and math. The teacher must understand the signs and symptoms of uncontrolled blood sugar levels and recognize the need for medical interventions. The student needs to see the nurse, have blood sugar checks, and maybe dietary intake to get the blood levels back to normal.
Emotions can also trigger health concerns such as asthma. Asthma is a chronic condition prevalent in school aged children. High stake tests such pre-entrance college exams can lead to stress induced asthma. Students need medication to dilate their airway to be able to breathe. Working with their teachers, the nurse should know testing dates and be prepared to try and schedule asthma treatment prior to examination.
Food allergies also impact students during the school day. Lunch menus should clearly indicate foods prepared with allergen causing substances such as nuts. Explaining label reading to students, parents and teachers is an important role of the school nurse. One family indicated their son is allergic to frogs. Nutrition Services did not have frog on the menu, but in talking with the teacher it was discovered the science kits contained frogs for dissection. It is important to establish a professional relationship between the school nurse, all teachers, and school administration staff to keep the student safe while at school.
School nursing is a specialty practice and critical to the health and safety of students. They are the link between the education system, students, families, and health care providers. They all work as partners to keep students healthy, in school ready to learn and strive for academic success.