Coronavirus highlights school nurse role in public health prevention and response

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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.