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Schools Face Shortage Of Nurses As Districts Consider Reopening

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've spent the last few weeks thinking about the tough decisions that have to be made before the start of another school year. And now we want to focus on school nurses. Throughout the country, there is a shortage of them. In some states, school nurses are technically responsible for overseeing the health of thousands of students, and many schools don't even have one nurse on site.

So what role will they be expected to play if schools reopen this fall? We called Donna Mazyck to talk about this. She's a former school nurse and the executive director of the National Association of School Nurses. And she's with us now.

Donna Mazyck, thanks for joining us.

DONNA MAZYCK: Thank you for this opportunity. It's good to speak with you today.

MARTIN: So give me the big picture here. The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that every school have a nurse on site. And I understand that nationally, we're not even close to that. So what is the picture?

MAZYCK: You're right. We're not close to that. Currently, 25% of U.S. schools have no nurse at all. And about 40% of those schools have a nurse only part of the day - a nurse who's shared among several schools. What we know is that school nurses care for the entire student population, especially the most vulnerable students. School nurses are identifying students at risk and helping them get the care they need.

School nurses are tracking and addressing health concerns and trends. And school nurses decrease communicable disease outbreaks. With the expertise that school nurses have in public health and infection control practices, school nurses are essential to safely reopening schools.

MARTIN: As the virus was spreading, what was the role that nurses were expected to play? I mean, under normal circumstances, right, I think people know what school nurses do. They administer medication. They attend to sick students. They make a decision about whether a student should go home. So as the virus was spreading this spring, what was the role that school nurses were playing?

MAZYCK: Well, before schools closed, school nurses were educating and reinforcing to the school community frequent hand-washing and keeping hands away from their faces, frequent cleaning of commonly touched surfaces, isolating students who presented with symptoms of infectious disease.

And then shortly after that, a lot of the schools closed somewhere around mid-March. And so what school nurses were doing during that time - they were assisting students who had chronic health conditions. They were continuing to educate their communities on COVID, educating staff on COVID-19 and those infection control measures I spoke about.

MARTIN: What - so what are you hearing from the members of your association about this? What are their concerns as this whole debate over reopening continues, given that there are kind of wildly different views about this across the country?

MAZYCK: Right. And we are hearing about them. We actually did a survey of school nurses in late April to find out what equipment they had before schools closed. And 23% didn't have an isolation room. And many of them did not have the N95 masks or the PPE that you would have for health care providers. And those are pieces of equipment that are essential to have in the school building for the nurses who are health care providers.

The other thing that we're hearing is the intersection of COVID-19 and the next flu season, the upcoming flu season. School nurses are accustomed to conducting surveillance of influenza-like illnesses. The other thing on the table are the increased mental health needs, the social-emotional needs, the fear, the anxiety that students family and staff will be coming into schools with. School nurses are often sentinels for student mental health needs because students may manage their emotions with physical complaints. They may complain of a stomachache when what they are having is anxiety and tension.

And so these are things that school nurses are thinking about. And it's one of the reasons why our organization is saying with less than half of the schools having access to a full-time school nurse, there needs to be funding to hire those school nurses.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, as we said earlier, school districts are trying to figure out what to do for the fall. Given your work, what do you hope school officials keep in mind as they consider their options?

MAZYCK: I hope this school officials know what's happening in their districts, in their communities, that they would follow the science. And with schools meeting inside a building, it's vital to make decisions that are based on current science related to the disease. So it's important for them to have the school nurse, science-based professional, in their conversations.

MARTIN: That was Donna Mazyck. She's the executive director of the National Association of School Nurses.

Donna Mazyck, thanks so much for talking to us today.

MARTIN: Thank you, Michel. It's good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.