School Nursing Shortage: A Catch-22 for Families

Kids with chronic diseases are caught in the school budget crunch.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Kids with diabetes and other chronic illnesses struggle to stay healthy while in school. Dr. Bruce Hensel reports. (Published Monday, Feb 6, 2012)

    Samuel Gilboy is only 5 years old, but he can already name all the astronauts and their missions.  Samuel is dealing with a life and death mission of his own.

    He has type 1 diabetes. One missed insulin shot, and he could get very sick. If his blood sugar gets too low, he could die.

    When Samuel started kindergarten, his parents tried to work with the school nurse so he would be safe. They quickly got a reality check. Samuel’s mother, Lisa Hansen, said it was shocking.

    "Those nurses don’t stick. They’re not around long enough to understand his diabetes and be thoroughly trained," Hansen said. "The schedule changes and they wind up going somewhere else.  It’s frustrating."

    Sam and other children with chronic diseases are caught in the middle of a struggle between school districts that are crunched for money and understaffed nurses.

    Don Wilson, the principal of Wonderland Elementary School, said his hands are tied. 

    "We work on a very limited budget, so we would have to decide between paper and pencils for the kids, or an extra day of nursing," Wilson said.

    In LA Unified School District, there are 797 schools, but only 530 nurses. Last year alone, 36 nursing positions were cut.

    These nurses serve multiple schools and rotate on a daily basis. So what happens when a nurse gets stuck in traffic?

    "Sometimes they don’t show up.  If something goes wrong, they don’t have a backup system, and so we wind up filling in a lot," Hansen said. "If someone is late, if someone is sick."

    School nurses are not mandated in California. Or in Virginia, where, last month, first-grader Ammaria Johnson died after suffering an allergic reaction to peanuts at her school. No nurse was on hand to give her an Epi-Pen injection. 

    "There was a time when schools received full funding for a nurse, but there was a time when schools got funding for arts, music, and all of the other things we received in our schools," Wilson said.

    And that leaves Samuel and the tens of thousands of kids like him and their families with few options.

    "It’s scary.  Every time my cell phone rings, I’m like, 'What’s wrong?'" Hansen said. "You kinda live a life on the edge."

    In 2007, a rule was passed that allowed other trained school staff to administer shots. Parents said they were keeping their diabetic children out of school or having to leave work constantly to give the shots themselves.

    But the nurses' associations sued, claiming it was unsafe. They successfully overturned the rule.

    Now the American Diabetes Association is fighting in court to get the rule reinstated to provide relief to the parents.

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