Teri and family at the Fall Stroll for Epilepsy 2013. Photo credit: Laura Sharpe
Teri Saurer and family at the Fall Stroll for Epilepsy 2013. Photo credit: Laura Sharpe

Nurses in North Carolina schools currently monitor the health of more than 1,200 children, on average, and many cover two or three schools. But parents want to see that change.

By Whitney Isenhower

“I know there’s a lot of important issues, but to us, this is one that’s top,” said Teri Saurer, founder of N. C. Parents Advocating for School Health.

The issue she’s referring to is more nurses in schools. Saurer, whose 6-year-old daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy at 9 months old and allergies to several types of nuts at 3 years old, believes nurses are needed to both provide routine care and tend to children in crisis situations.

Parents and children gather at a Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioner’s budget hearing in May 2013 to advocate for more school nurses. Photo credit is to Elyse Dashew.. Photo credit: Stacy Straub

And after moms such as Saurer spoke up, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools responded. When the 2013-14 county budget passed, funding was provided for 11 additional nurses and two more nurse supervisors in the system.

Formed about a year and a half ago, N. C. Parents Advocating for School Health aims to get more nurses in schools not only in Mecklenburg County but statewide. To make their case, group members held meetings to determine the group’s goals, reached out to county officials and spoke at budget hearings.

Saurer, who also has an 8-year-old daughter, started researching the lack of full-time nurses in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools after realizing a nurse was only present two or three days a week at Ballantyne Elementary, where she enrolled her youngest daughter.

Currently, trained emergency responders, who are school personnel, provide routine care, such as administering injections for diabetic children, when nurses are not there. But if a child suffers a first-time allergic reaction or has another issue requiring an epinephrine shot without a prescription, the responders can only dial 911. Epinephrine, or adrenaline, stops severe allergic reactions.

A Philadelphia student, Laporshia Massey, died this October after an asthma attack at school where a nurse was not present. She was 12 years old.

Improvements made

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends one school nurse for every 750 students. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have one nurse for approximately every 1,100 students, according to Evelyn Stitt, the interim school health deputy division director for the Mecklenburg County Health Department. The program oversees nurses in the school district. Charlotte-Mecklenburg does have full-time nurses in several schools with larger student populations.

Teri Saurer at the 30th Anniversary North Carolina School Nurse Conference held Oct. 21-22 in Chapel Hill. Photo credit: Elaine Yeargan

Stitt began her career as a school nurse in Charlotte-Mecklenburg in the late 1970s before becoming a school health supervisor in the 1984-85 academic year. While she acknowledges the system is not where it should be, she says great improvements have been made throughout the years. She recalled a time when there was one nurse for every eight schools in 1975.

“We’ve come a long way as far as getting a nurse in every school,” Stitt said.

In addition to addressing emergency needs, nurses provide students with state-required screenings, such as dental and vision, and lead classroom health-education sessions.

While the Mecklenburg county manager’s office included a proposed $1.2 million in additional nurse funding following N.C. Parents Advocating for School Health’s request, about $600,000 was allocated to the cause. The new positions this funding supports will be added in January.

County commissioners also helped bring school nurse funding to the attention of the county manager’s office. Saurer said she reached out to commissioners at a board of education member’s advisement after learning the board does not influence nurse funding. Schools nurses are strictly county, and not school system, employees.

Kim Ratliff, vice chair of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, was particularly responsive to Saurer’s cause. While Ratliff does not have children of her own, she feels it’s important for a nurse to be present and tend to children when they’re hurt.

“I know for me, when I was much younger, playing on the playground, anything can happen,” she said. “You want a skilled nurse there.”

Elected to the board in December 2012, Ratliff helped move nurse funding from a priority-three to priority-one issue for the budget in her first term.

After gaining funding for more school nurses, advocates gathered to thank Mecklenburg County Commissioner Kim Ratliff for her support. Photo credit: Teri Saurer

A School Health Task Team for Mecklenburg County also formed in March 2013 to assess schools’ needs and how to manage them, including the number of nurses. The team examined changes occurring in the school health program as management duties fell to the county after being under Carolinas Healthcare System’s oversight for the past 18 years.

According to an April 2013 team report, there were 117 nurses serving 157 schools for the county as of July 1.

Bobby Cobb, deputy director of the Mecklenburg County Health Department, said the schools are fortunate to have commissioners’ support for adding the nurses and supervisors to the system.

“As things go, it’s not where you want it to be,” he said. “But still, we have a foundation.”

Expanding the cause

Parents of children with and without chronic and severe illnesses are members of N.C. Parents Advocating for School Health.

Elyse Dashew read about the group in a newspaper article last year, and then became involved with its fundraising goals. She said that while her 15-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son do not have pressing medical needs, she thought it was important to have enough nurses to keep students safe.

Dashew also emphasized that if nurses are present to give shots and attend to students’ health issues, staff and teachers can focus on their primary responsibilities.

“I think it’s just a worthy cause,” she said.

Teri Saurer and family at the Fall Stroll for Epilepsy 2013. Photo credit: Laura Sharpe

Saurer said she is impressed by how much support has grown for the group since its start. She estimated about 10 parents were interested in 2012 and more than 100 want to get involved now. Nearly 300 people also “like” the group’s Facebook page.

The group is expanding its cause throughout North Carolina, including working with parents in Iredell, Union and Wake counties to bring more nurses to their school systems.

“There’s just so many injuries and accidents every day at school,” Saurer said. “I think it’s important for every child for health and safety, not just kids with medical needs.”

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