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School Nurses: Connecting with Students, Concerned about Reopening

School nurses and pediatricians worry that students with chronic health issues aren't getting all the help they need during the crisis, and that a growing number with mental-health issues are losing access to screening. (Adobe Stock)
School nurses and pediatricians worry that students with chronic health issues aren't getting all the help they need during the crisis, and that a growing number with mental-health issues are losing access to screening. (Adobe Stock)
May 20, 2020

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The pandemic is a special concern for anyone dealing with chronic health issues, including students. In Minnesota, school nurses are trying to help with gaps, and looking ahead to eventual reopening.

Before classrooms closed, said Tom Stinson, a licensed nurse at Harding High School in St. Paul, he would see roughly 40 students a day, with needs ranging from injuries to help with diabetes management. Stinson said he worries that some of those needs aren't being met right now.

"I mean, there's kids that I would see every day, two or three times a day, that I might get a chance to talk to 'em every couple weeks - so, you lose that," he said. "Even though you have a built-in relationship that you had prior to distant learning, it's hard to carry that over into distant learning."

He said some students simply don't respond to outreach efforts. Despite the barriers, he's sending emails, making phone calls and arranging secure virtual meets for those in need of a follow-up.

Stinson said at-risk students face particular challenges: Either distance learning continues and they don't get the help they need, or they risk coronavirus exposure when classrooms open again, depending on how safety plans are implemented.

Karl Eckberg, a Twin Cities-based pediatrician for M-Health Fairview, said whenever schools reopen, he hopes a strong plan is in place to protect at-risk students.

"I have to think about those that have higher medical complexity," he said, "those that are tracheostomy-dependent, ventilator-dependent, those who are requiring multiple medications to manage a chronic disease."

Eckberg also encouraged parents to have conversations with primary-care providers on how to navigate campuses safely.

The Minnesota Education Department has said it hasn't finalized safety plans for any possible reopening, but is working with health officials on protecting all students.

Stinson, a member of the American Federation of Teachers, said many school nurses donated protective gear to hospitals at the onset of the pandemic. That made him worry about supply levels in the future.

"We don't even get bandages half the time," she said. "Now we're going to have to get N-95's and gloves? I don't know how. I can't see us getting enough supplies in public schools."

Minnesota now faces a $2.4 billion deficit, prompting more concerns about the ripple effect school budgets will see in state and federal funding. That's why many are calling on the U.S. Senate to approve the HEROES Act, the $3 trillion relief package recently approved by the House.

The AFT plan is online at aft.org.

Disclosure: American Federation of Teachers contributes to our fund for reporting on Education, Health Issues, Livable Wages/Working Families and Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Mike Moen, Public News Service - MN