Teachers tackling medical needs: North Carolina schools do not meet nursing guidelines

Diane Wilson Image
Thursday, August 29, 2019
Teachers tackling medical needs: North Carolina schools do not meet nursing guidelines
The days of each school having a nurse on site is not the reality for many districts in North Carolina.

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- The days of each school having a nurse on site is not the reality for many districts in North Carolina.

You may be surprised to learn the daily hands-on medical needs in the majority of schools are handled by teachers, front desk staff, even administrators. At Lockhart Elementary School in Knightdale, Assistant Principal Jennifer Lecorchick makes sure students medical needs are getting taken care of each day.

"There are days that I feel like I'm a doctor, I'm a nurse and lowest that I'm a school administrator," Lecorchick said. "I don't mind. It's making sure our kids are safe and that they are cared for."

The day we were at Lockhart Elementary, the assigned school nurse was not there as she shares her time with another school in Wake County. Lecorchick showed us how each student with medical needs has a care plan. A care plan that was established by the school nurse and child's parent, and then the nurse trains the school staff to carry out the students daily medical needs.

One of the students with medical needs is 5th grader Kayley Pike. She has diabetes, and the school nurse trained her teacher along with other school staff how to make sure Kayley checks her blood sugar level several times a day and gives herself insulin when needed.

The teacher takes time away from her class to do this and also documents Kayley's levels in her care plan. Lecorchick says the school nurse is just a phone call away if there is an emergency, but she still would like more.

"We absolutely need school nurse's full time," Lecorchick said.

Kayley Pike works with her teacher to follow her health plan.

Wake County parent Kira Kroboth agrees: "I feel a nurse should be there every day, just like teachers are there every day, front desk is there every day, librarians are there every day, why is a nurse not there every day?"

The Raleigh mom of three boys, one child with a life-threatening peanut allergy says while her kids do know their school nurse since they worked together on their kid's health plans for the school year, it's their kid's teachers or front desk staff who handles the daily medical needs, which is worrisome to Kira.

"Medical things you learn from school and with medical training, they don't have that," Kira said.

Kira's 4th grader Asher even worries about it.

"The school nurse isn't here every day, who is going to help us," Asher said.

When it comes to school nurses in Wake County, right now, there are a total of 104, but there are 207 buildings that house students. According to the county that breaks down to about one school nurse for every 1,689 students. Which doesn't meet the federal recommended ratio of one nurse to every 750 students. Nor does it meet the National Association of School Nurses as it recommends having a registered nurse at every school.

Wake County Health and Human Services provide the majority of nurses to the district.

"I'm sure people would love to have the nurse to give the injection for diabetes or love to have the nurse be the one to hand out the medication, but when you think about the best use for the nurses and the nurses we have that's not it," Director Regina Petteway said.

Petteway says the school nurse's main job is to work with the parents and make sure every child that has a medical need has a care plan by working with parents and school representatives. Then the nurses train the school staff to carry out those care plans. She also says the nurses audit the school staff to make sure they're following the medical needs of each student.

When I asked Petteway if she has received complaints from school administration about the nurses not being present in the school enough, she said, "Officially I haven't had any complaints in the last couple of years. Unofficially every now and then we will hear someone in the community say we don't understand the schools don't have their own nurse or we don't understand why a teacher has to give out medication."

The county says it has added forty additional school nurses over the last five years, but Petteway says having one nurse assigned to each school isn't a reality.

"I think we could always add more nurses. The question is for the folks that make those resource and political decisions where is the money going to come from?"

State Senator Wiley Nickel, who represents Wake County says he's pushing for more funding for school nurses as he feels it's a safety issue. Nickel has forty-two public schools in his district; he's visited nineteen so far.

"I have not met a single nurse, not one."

Instead, he says he learned it's the front desk staff who often in charge of making sure kids get their medication or tackling the daily medical needs. He says the lack of a nurse in the building is one of the top issues school staff say they want action on during every tour.

"It's also about mental health. The nurses are really the front lines of finding these students that have mental health issues and getting them the help they need. If you don't have a nurse in every school, you've got kids that you are just missing," Nickel said.

The one big obstacle missing to make sure a nurse is in every school is the money. To fund a school nurse for every school not just in Wake County but the entire state will cost millions.

If state lawmakers want to tackle the problem, this latest report says it could cost up to $79 million annually to have a nurse in every public school in the state. To meet the federal recommended ratio of one nurse to every 750 students, the price tag could cost up to $45 Million.

For Nickel, he says it would be money well spent.

"It's just a question of our values, where we want to put our dollars, do we want to put it for more tax cuts, or do we want to you know, improve student safety, and have a nurse in every school," Nickel said.