Parents, doctors push for nurses in every school, but budget concerns linger
Posted February 29
Updated March 1
Fayetteville, N.C. — Some parents and doctors are pushing to get a nurse in every school in North Carolina, but finding the money needed for such a tall order is a chronic challenge.
Nurses often find better-paying jobs in the private industry, and the shortage can put students at risk.
Thirteen-year-old Isabel Arreola knows the fear of not having a nurse nearby firsthand.
Last month, Arreola, who has Type 1 diabetes, saw her blood sugar take a dive during her first period of the day at Fayetteville's 71st Classical Middle School.
"I can't speak. I can't react," Arreola said of her episode. "I'm literally stumbling down the stairs because I can barely walk."
When she got to the school's office, Arreola began having convulsions. Someone called 911 and her mom, but a nurse wasn't present.
"If a nurse was there, she would have known what to do," Arreola said. "No one in that room at the time knew anything."
Arreola needed a glucogon injection, but she left her emergency syringe at home. Her father, Arturo Arreola, says he's not sure anyone at the school would have known how to give his daughter an emergency injection even if she'd had her syringe.
"So when I got there, and I started asking questions, they had no answers for the questions that I was asking," he said.
It's a situation that could be repeated at anytime in Cumberland County, which has 27 nurses to serve 86 schools – a ratio that breaks down to about one nurse for every 2,300 students.
The state and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend one nurse for every 750 students.
Shirley Johnson, director of health services for the school district, said having a nurse in every school is "a beautiful dream."
"Each school has a nurse at least one day a week, and any day they're on call," she said.
In Arreola's case, Johnson said school employees did everything they could. She also said the district trains three staff members in every school to treat diabetes and other chronic illnesses. But those staff members aren't nurses.
"Although we would love to have a registered nurse in every building, I think we have a strategy and plan in place that's effective," Johnson said, "and it's keeping our children in school."
Janet Colvin, a Cumberland County school nurse, said serving as a school nurse has gotten more complex in recent years.
Colvin says more children are dealing with chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma and allergies.
"And then you think about the elementary schools and immunization, and who is checking to make sure all the immunizations are up to date," she said. "It's our school nurses. They've got a lot on their plate."
Dr. Brunilda Cordero is among a growing group of physicians advocating to put one full-time nurse in every school.
"It's a disaster waiting to happen," Cordero said of the current setup. "It's crucial to have someone who can really attend to these children immediately."
Fast-growing Wake County also had a longterm shortage of school nurses, but in 2014, county commissioners voted to pay for 10 new nurses every year for four years.
Once all of those hires are made, Wake County will have 101 nurses serving about 170 schools.
In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the district has been able to staff every one one of its schools with a nurse thanks to a contract the system has with the county health department.