Challenges have only increased over the years
Eagle Staff Writer
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January 10, 2018
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Michele Harold, a nurse at McQuistion Elementary School, checks a student’s height.

Challenges that face school nurses have only increased in recent years as more children have chronic illnesses and allergies and many districts face a shortage of substitutes.

In school districts large and small, nurses rely on each other to handle emergencies, cover absences and lend a hand when needed.

In the Allegheny-Clarion Valley School District, Tracy Daily and Holly Irwin are the two nurses for the district of 703 students.

Fortunately, both schools in the district are on the same campus which is helpful when one of them needs an extra hand or must cover for the other, Irwin said.

Dailey said she came to the school setting after working in a hospital, and it took time to adjust to the lack of staff on-hand.

“In a hospital, you can press a button and have 15 people in your room,” she said. “Here if we have an emergency, I’m calling Holly.”

Linda Peifer, principal at McQuistion Elementary School, said there is a shortage of substitute nurses in the Butler School District. The district keeps a list of available substitutes similar to how it handles substitute teachers.

Butler has 10 school nurses and five health technicians for nine school buildings, serving the district’s 6,777 students. Peifer said they pull from their sub list to cover absences, and then use other health staff members to cover if necessary.

Michele Harold, nurse at McQuistion Elementary, said she believes there are many qualified candidates out there, but people may not know that they do not have to have their school nurse certification to substitute in a school.

“All you need to become a substitute is to be a licensed practical nurse or registered nurse,” Harold said.

Parochial schools

School districts are also responsible for covering the parochial schools within their district boundaries.

Liz Williams, nurse at Seneca Valley Middle School which instructs seventh and eighth graders, said they cover St. Gregory School in Zelienople and St. Kilian and Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School in Cranberry Township. That adds an additional 1,412 students to Seneca Valley’s 7,161.

At Seneca Valley, they have seven building nurses and two float nurses who cover absences, give assistance and cover the parochial schools.

Williams said they had one float nurse until North Catholic came to Cranberry Township. Seneca Valley officials realized they’d need another nurse to cover the increase of students — 496 from North Catholic — in the district.

Nurses at the public schools handle screenings, immunizations records and record documentation for nonpublic schools as well as being available for any health or injury issues that come up.

Ashley Blystone, assistant principal at Holy Sepulcher Catholic School in Middlesex Township, said a nurse from the Mars School District visits a few times a month to keep up with records and screenings. Holy Sepulcher has about 180 students in preschool through eighth grade.

Administrators and teachers are able to handle most of the day-to-day routine care for students, although they may call the nurse, who is about a 10 to 15 minute drive away, for a more serious issue.

A Mars school nurse also would be on hand more regularly for a student with a chronic health issue like diabetes, but Blystone said she can only remember one student in 10 years who needed such care.

Student health trends

Officials say there seems to be more students today who have chronic health issues, need procedures done during school or have severe allergies.

“There’s a lot of asthma, allergies, diabetes,” Harold said. “Because of inclusion in the schools also there’s a lot more procedures that need to be done, like (gastrostomy) tube feeding, oxygen administration, insulin.”

Peifer said she has noticed more students with severe food and bee sting allergies. Harold said they’ve educated staff on Epipen use and how to handle allergic reactions.

Williams said she doesn’t think people realize how closely school nurses work with the rest of the school staff to care for students.

“We’re here to manage so any child can function their best and get the most out of their education,” she said.

Sometimes that means helping arrange a student’s schedule to allow time to visit the nurse to take care of a chronic health issue or rearranging a classroom to accommodate an injury, Williams said.

Many smaller tasks also fall to the school nurses, things that may fall through the cracks otherwise, Peifer said.

“If a child comes in without a belt and their pants are falling down, they find a belt. If they’re having trouble with their shoes, I walk in and they’re repairing a shoe,” Peifer said of her school’s nursing staff.

“They pick up the slack of a lot of things that fall under the umbrella of taking care of children. They really fuss over and take care of kids.”