When Julie King walked up to the check-in office at a Utah elementary school, it was pure coincidence that she likely saved the life of a student. Complaining of nausea, the boy — who had a known peanut allergy — was told by the secretary to lie down for a little while. King, however, recognized the symptoms for what they really were: the reaction to a potentially fatal food allergy. She knew because her daughter has a similar allergy.
This isn’t a story so much about King, however. This is a story about a school without a professional nurse who is trained to recognize such a situation, a system quickly running out of nurses altogether, and a million-dollar legislative request to start fixing the problem.
Utah’s school nurses, a key asset in our educational system, are currently asked to do the impossible; on average one nurse is expected to meet the needs of 4,543 children from as many as seven schools. That number was a mind-blowing 7,284 students for one nurse in Davis School District last year. In Sevier County, one full-time nurse was responsible for 13 schools, assisted only by a quarter-time nurse. Two school nurses in San Juan District were responsible for a dozen widely scattered schools.
This is an impossibility of our own making, and one that the current Legislature can change. Physical health is a growing concern. On average, at least one child in each public education classroom has at least one chronic health condition like asthma, diabetes or a food allergy. These children are vulnerable to health crises at school that require a trained responder to be available. Twenty-seven students received emergency epinephrine injections while at school last year.
Not having a nurse at a school creates considerable risk. Emergencies don’t wait. Can we expect asthmatic students to only have an attack or students to have an allergic reaction on the half-day of the week a nurse is on location? We are gambling with our most vulnerable children’s health and even their lives.
Perhaps more on-point for this year’s Legislature, school nurses are also trained and qualified to meet the increasing emotional and mental health needs of students. They have broad experience dealing with frightened, emotionally out-of-control students, and spend about 30 percent of their time dealing with such students. Local education agencies — school districts and charter schools — have the primary responsibility for hiring and compensating school nurses. Over the years, as they’ve focused their limited dollars on teachers rather than nurses, the number of nurses has collapsed across the state.4 comments on this story
That is why we are requesting an incredibly modest $1 million in new funding to help hire more nurses. Given the state’s half-billion-dollar surplus, most of which will be going to public education, a small effort will go a long way. Otherwise, the health of our children will remain in the hands of well-meaning but untrained staff, or, if they’re very, very lucky, an experienced parent who randomly crosses their path. William E. Cosgrove, MD, is immediate past president of the Utah Chapter, American Academy of Pediatrics. Richard L. Jensen is chairman of the Find Your Focus Foundation. Kim Lowe, RN, is a school nurse in Alpine School District. Julie King is a member of the Utah Food Allergy Network.