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Parents Are Putting Faith in School Nurses Who Don’t Exist

The Center for Disease Control recommends that there be at least one nurse for every 750 students. That's not happening.

The presence of nurses in schools quells parental anxieties about cuts, stings, allergic reactions, broken bones, and the stuff no ones even thought of yet. According to a new survey conducted byUniversity of Michigan researchers 77 percent of parents are confident that school nurses will provide effective healthcare for minor accidents. That’s nice, but let’s dwell on the percentage there for a second. It high. So was the percentage of parents who thought that a school nurse was on-site at their child’s school every day, which hovered around 60 percent. In reality, fewer than half of American school have full-time nurses and, in urban school systems, there’s an average of 1 school nurse for every 4,000 students. In other words, somewhere between 12ish and 27ish percent of parents are putting their faith in nonexistent nurses.

For the record–and this starts to feel like trivia–the Center for Disease Control recommends that there be at least one nurse for every 750 students.

In a recent national survey, 70 percent of school nurses reported that medication was often administered by teachers and aids and 52 percent of nurses said children don’t receive the urgent care they need. More than a third of the respondents, who seemed pretty damn frustrated, pointed out that medications were not administered on strict schedules. While nurses do their best — one supervisor reported that she instructs her nurses to create flow charts to let the other nurses know which students may need more assistance — their efforts could not possibly pick up the slack.

And the slack is pretty serious. In Philadelphia, which has 180 nurses for 332 schools and around 200,000 students, 22 percent of students have asthma. That’s both double the national average and a very real problem given the lack of oversight and immediate care. Children have died. 

Where are the nurses and where are they going? According to a study released by the National Association of School Nurses, the average school nurse is 55 years old, which means that most are likely to retire within the next 10 years. Only 15 percent of school nurses are under the age of 40, meaning that an aging workforce, coupled with an unwillingness of school districts to re-hire nurses after the Recession helped slash budgets, will make a shrinking workforce into a growing problem. No smaller wonder either: In other medical spaces, like hospitals, Resident Nurses are paid closer to $70,000 dollars a year, but the average salary for a school nurse is about $55,000 dollars per year.

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Parents may be naive about children’s access to medical assistance, but they’re not totally ignorant. According to the same study that showed parents exhibiting trust in imagined nurses, parents don’t have faith in schools to recognize or treat kids’ mental health issues. This is unfortunate, but given the statistics it may be wise. Sometimes there is no human failing and faith remains unfounded.