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With no injured students appearing at their door, no pupils with chronic conditions arriving for a visit, why would school nurses be needed in a virtual learning environment?
“There’s a lot that a school nurse can do virtually,” says Linda Mendonca, RN, MSN, PHNA-BC, NCSN, FNASN, president-elect of the 17,000-member National Association of School Nurses (NASN). Even with virtual learning, school nurses provide a variety of important health services.
For instance, school nurses can provide health education to the school community, she notes. They can also monitor immunizations. Some data suggests, Mendonca says, that during the pandemic children are not being kept current on their immunizations. Whether the child is sitting in a school building or at home, school nurses need to be connected to parents to make sure that the children have all of their immunizations up to date.
School nurses can also provide referrals and connections to resources. If a family needs help due to food insecurity or access to any kind of social services, “the school nurse can be an advocate in providing those contacts and making those connections for them.”
With the fears and anxieties the pandemic causes, school nurses can also assist with mental health, “offering information to families about mental health concerns and again making contacts and referrals.”
Besides these types of assistance, school nurses, says Mendonca, can work with students with chronic health conditions, “continuing that care coordination.” They can help ensure that these students are following up on medical appointments.
As for reductions in school nurse staff, the NASN does not have specific data on that topic. Mendonca notes that in Rhode Island, where she lives, she was aware of school nurses being given pink slips in May, with some not being called back. In Florida, a story in The Palm Beach Post stated that the Palm Beach County’s Health Care District furloughed health care personnel, including school nurses. The reason cited, according to the story, was that the school year would start with remote learning with no end in sight.
At the same time, notes Mendonca, school nurses are in short supply. Statistics from a 2018 report in NASN’s The Journal of School Nursing indicate that 25% of schools did not employ a school nurse and 35% employed a school nurse only part-time.
The safety of students and staff must take priority in making the decision for a safer return to in-person learning, according to a statement released by the NASN in July. The decision-making process, the statement says, must be based on accurate public health data at the national, state, and local levels.
“School nurses want to get back to school, want to be part of that community in person, but we want to make sure that that we can do it safely,” Mendonca says. That decision to return to school needs to be based on public health data, including data at the community level, because community transmission rates vary, she notes. Also, adequate resources and plans need to be available, such as PPE, cleaning and disinfecting supplies, testing strategies and contact tracing.
“School nurses,” says Mendonca, “are the public health experts in the school community. And they are certainly going to be key to a successful reopening of schools in this country.”
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