Potential changes to health care for students at DC schools draw concern, confusion

- Big changes may be coming to the role school nurses play at D.C. Public Schools. The problem is very few people involved know exactly what those changes are and the union that represents school nurses is concerned staffing changes may put children at risk.

The D.C. Department of Health held a meeting this week to inform parents about a new health program based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention model called Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child. The goal is to enable optimal health in a safe environment, provide the right care at the right time, maximize resources and include the family in health decisions.

“Transitioning from a model that is about 20 years old to a newer model that improves the structure of the program, to provide a more comprehensive service to our children and families,” said Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of D.C. Department of Health. “What we are doing here is we are transitioning from a nursing only model to a more comprehensive approach.”

“I'm worried because my child has a chronic illness and I’m worried that something may happen when a person who is not a nurse cannot assess my child,” said parent Annette Price. “A teacher cannot assess my child if something is majorly happening with him.”

The health department did say that at schools where there are children with chronic illnesses, a nurse will always be present.

But critics of these possible changes are concerned the program will not offer sufficient health care and are worried about a reduction in nursing hours. There is even an online petition set up by the District of Columbia Nurses Association. In a news release, the group said:

“The District of Columbia Nurses Association (DCNA) announces its support for legislation requiring a nurse in every school for 40 hours per week.

“Students have died because a nurse was not present in the school.  Recent student deaths occurred in the Philadelphia school system when a school nurse was not scheduled to work at the school.  We cannot have this happen in the District.

“Many jurisdictions do not have an adequate number of nurses in the school system because of cost-saving measures. What is the value of a child's life? The school nurse is the first line of defense for the health of children. School nurses monitor asthma, diabetes and many more chronic diseases. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 15-18% of American students have chronic health conditions.

“DCNA believes that the District of Columbia will cut the funds of nurses in the school system which could lead to fewer nurses in the school system. The bottom line is that it is the duty of the DC Public Schools to protect our children and that means we need a nurse in every school throughout each school day.

“The District of Columbia law only requires a school nurse in every school for 20 hours per week.  We need a nurse in every school for 40 hours per week.

“It is time for the District to put the health of the children first.  They deserve it.”

On Tuesday night at D.C. Public Schools’ State of Schools event, there was no mention about the health care changes. Parents we spoke with said they did not know much about it and school administrators would not comment. They referred us instead to the Department of Health.

The D.C. Council will take up the issue next Tuesday.

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