School Nurses Help Keep Students Healthy — And In School

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Most school children visit the nurse’s office on at least one occasion during their K-12 years. Whether the situation involves a real condition or a feigned ailment to avoid a certain subject, school nurses always seem to make everything better — even when they send their not-so-sick patients back to class. However, the job of a school nurse in this day and age involves much more than taking care of scrapes and headaches.

School nurse interacting with child

Today’s school nurses followed in the footsteps of Lina Rogers, the first school nurse in the United States, who began her career on Oct. 1, 1902. New York City schools hired Rogers to intervene with students in an attempt to reduce absences from communicable diseases, like the common cold, flu, or strep throat.

Over the past century, school nurse roles have expanded to include critical components such as chronic disease management, behavioral health assessment, emergency preparedness, and ongoing health education.

Although the approach to school nursing has become more comprehensive since the early 1900s, the core focus has remained the same: keep students healthy and in school, because attendance is fundamental to academic success.

On May 10, National School Nurse Day celebrates school nurses and the dedication they give to their profession. National School Nurse Day takes place each year on the Wednesday of National Nurses Week. National Nurses Week is an annual event designed to raise awareness of the role of nurses in society. It begins on May 6 and ends on May 12 – Florence Nightingale’s birthday.

While some schools may employ licensed practical nurses (LPNs), the National Association of School Nurses recommends a bachelor’s degree and registered nurse (RN) license as the minimum requirement for school nurses. Also, as of Jan. 1, 2020, candidates who wish to take the National Certified School Nurse (NCSN) exam must hold a bachelor’s degree or higher in nursing in addition to their RN license.

In the Duquesne University online RN-BSN program, current RNs can earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, which may enable them to pursue other careers in the field, such as a school nurse.

Roles Of School Nurses

While school nurses continue to care for students with contagious illnesses, as Lina Rogers did, their roles have remarkably expanded from what they were more than 100 years ago.

Today, in addition to diagnosing conditions such as strep throat, head lice, pink eye, and chickenpox, school nurses also take on more substantial responsibilities and children’s health issues, which may include:

  • Childhood obesity and diabetes
  • Allergies and asthma
  • Mental health
  • Bullying
  • Substance abuse
  • Crisis management
  • Poverty
  • Violence
  • Homelessness
  • Family crises
  • Immigration
  • Adolescent pregnancy
  • Sexually transmitted diseases

School Nurse Deficiency

As budgets tightened in preparation for the Great Recession in the early 2000s, many schools eliminated their nursing positions. According to a March 2016 article, “Many School Districts Don’t Have Enough School Nurses,” in U.S. News and World Report, fewer than half of the nation’s public schools have a full-time nurse on staff. In the worst cases, such as in some disadvantaged urban schools, the ratio of school nurses to students is one to 4,000.

“This absolutely has real consequences,” Beth Mattey, president of the National Association of School Nurses, says in the article. “If you have a child who isn’t healthy, who doesn’t feel well, who has a toothache, they will not learn. School nurses keep kids in school.”

Although the economy has recovered quite significantly since the recession, many districts haven’t re-hired nurses, but instead rotate them between schools. More than 30 percent of schools have part-time nurses only, according to the National Association of School Nurses.

“We have vulnerable children living in poverty whose school nurses are their only source of accessible health care,” says Maura McInerney, senior attorney for the Education Law Center, an education advocacy group. “The role of a school nurse today needs to be understood as being absolutely essential.”

Shannon Smith, coordinator of school health services for the City of Philadelphia, agrees. “The majority of people do not have any idea what nurses do. They think we put Band-Aids on scrapes and stickers on T-shirts. My nurses are part of the community. The kids know them, trust them. Sometimes they are the kids’ primary caregivers — they are the psychiatrists, the aunties, the moms, the only one that the child may trust.”

Because the job market is tight for school nurses, new graduates could try to break into the field by serving as a substitute for other school nurses. Gaining experience, networking with other nurses, and letting administrators see how they perform under pressure may lead to a permanent position.

Career Outlook

School nurses earn an average of about $45,000 annually, but some may be paid $70,000 or more, depending on the school or program and its location. School nurses typically work nine to ten months a year, have evenings and weekends off, and get fall and spring vacations.

School nurses work in a variety of settings, which may include pre-schools, elementary schools, middle or junior high schools, high schools, vocational schools, summer camps, or overseas military bases.

Experienced school nurses could advance to positions such as coordinating school health programs for a district or state or transition to working for a public health agency.

Duquesne University’s Online RN-BSN Program

The online RN-BSN program at Duquesne University curriculum is 100 percent online and includes courses in contemporary nursing and health-care issues, population-based health and community health nursing, nursing ethics, and organizational and clinical leadership. The RN-BSN program is designed to provide students with the critical thinking, analytical skills, and clinical reasoning needed to advance in their careers.