As the Coronavirus (COVID-19) expands across the globe and here in Washington State, there are investments we can make to keep our communities healthy during this outbreak and into the future.
Much like the annual flu, staving off COVID-19 requires close attention to hygiene. It is also more important than ever for people to use good hygiene, stay home when sick and contact their health provider before going to the Emergency Department. While Public Health is not advising schools to close at this time, this outbreak highlights the important role of health care providers across our communities – including in our schools.
Schools are already taking steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, we know that investing in prevention and having a nurse available to respond to illness is easier for some school districts than others. The fact that a school nurse first identified the 2009 H1N1 outbreak highlights the critical role these frontline health care providers play.
Many of our state’s schools do not have access to even basic levels of school nurse services. This shortage makes maintaining student health challenging even in the best of circumstances, and that challenge is magnified during a public health crisis such as the COVID-19 outbreak. Statewide, the School Nurse Corps provides direct nursing services and supports to primarily small, rural school districts with less than 2,000 students, as well as guidance and support to larger school districts. It also ensures that school staff are trained in emergency response and how to follow student health care plans so that kids are safe even when there are no medical personnel on site.
Over the last 20 years funding for the School Nurse Corps has remained flat, even as both student health conditions and the need for nursing care have drastically increased. And now, the COVID-19 outbreak highlights yet another critical role that schools nurses serve.
The breadth of support school nurses provide during outbreaks benefits the whole community. From supporting custodial staff and teachers with proper cleaning and disinfection processes to communicating in a mindful and therapeutic way with families navigating illness, school nurses are on the front lines. For example, school nurses ensure schools are following the state and federal classroom cleaning guidance to ensure that all students have access to a healthy learning environment.
School nurses also serve as the professional link between the education sector and public health. These professional RNs provide accurate and timely information to families and community members on public health developments, and work with schools and school districts to ensure that health protocols are understood and followed. School nurses are key to successful planning and implementation of evidence based prevention and response practices – and especially during outbreaks.
Even when there’s not a disease outbreak, school nurses are critical to ensuring students are healthy and ready to learn. In countless studies, school nurses have been associated with increased classroom attendance and improved academic achievement. Smaller nurse to student ratios are associated with lower absenteeism rates and higher graduation rates. Additionally, a key role of the school nurse includes assessing students’ health status, identifying barriers to educational progress, and developing health care plans to help avoid school absences.
During this outbreak and every day, our students deserve the security of having a registered professional nurse on campus. Please join us in urging Washington state lawmakers to invest $1.7 million in new funding in the School Nurse Corps during the 2020 legislative session.
Lynn Nelson, MSN, RN is a member of WSNA’s Legislative & Health Policy Council. Tessa McIlraith is the Legislative Chair for the School Nurse Organization of Washington and a practicing school nurse.