The school nurse is someone whom many of us never give a thought to until our child has a bad fall on the playground or until we learn that he or she could need life-saving medication at some point during the school day.
On September 25, 12-year-old Laporshia Massey died after an asthma attack that she suffered at Bryant Elementary School in Philadelphia. Her father, Daniel Burch, says she only became so sick because she did not receive proper medical attention by the school nurse. The day Laporshia died, there was no nurse on staff, the result of “doomsday budget cuts” that the Philadelphia School District (the eighth largest in the United States) passed last May.
Those budget cuts have resulted in 19 percent of the district’s school personnel — including all 127 assistant principals, 646 teachers and more than 1,200 aides — losing their jobs. Bryant Elementary School does have a school nurse but only for two days a week: previous budget cuts for the 2011-2012 school year had resulted in a loss of 100 school nurses (pdf). While there were 289 nurses working in Philadelphia’s public, private and parochial schools in 2011, there are now only 179 nurses.
On the last day of his daughter’s life, Burch says that the school told him that Laporshia was sick but failed to note the severity of her asthma attack. An unnamed source from the school district told the City Paper that when Laporshia “went to the teacher, she was told there’s no nurse, and just to be calm.”
Laporshia also called Burch’s fianceé, Sherri Mitchell, and told her “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Only after the 12-year-old came home in the afternoon was it evident that she was very, very ill. Burch immediately gave Laporshia her medication and headed with her to the emergency room. Along the way, Laporshia collapsed in the car. Burch was able to flag down a passing ambulance who sped Laporshia to the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital but she later died there.
To say that Laporshia’s death was avoidable is an understatement. Almost 10 percent of kids in the United States have asthma; it is hardly a rare childhood illness. 15 to 18 percent of today’s school children are estimated to have serious health conditions; in addition to asthma, these could be diabetes, cerebral palsy, sickle cell anemia, epilepsy, cancer, congenital hearth problems, mental health conditions and food allergies.
More school children also have developmental and/or learning disabilities such as an autism spectrum disorder or behavioral issues that require medication. A trained school nurse is more necessary than ever and all the more in urban school districts in lower economic areas where children are more likely to have less access to routine medical care.
That is, a school nurse today does a whole lot more than bring out the bandaids and ice packs. School nurses have to oversee health records, check that immunizations are up-to-date (no easy feat in an age when some parents are eager to seek exemptions), screen for diseases including scoliosis and monitor contagious diseases that could become epidemics.
Despite all this, the state-mandated ratio of nurses to students in the state of Pennsylvania is 1,500:1, more than twice the ratio recommended by the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) and called for by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as Kelly Phillips Erb (whose daughter was a student in the Philadelphia District) writes on Forbes.
School nurses from the Philadelphia School District are planning to hold a candlelight vigil for Laporshia on Thursday night in front of the headquarters of the Philadelphia School District. Noting that some communities have been “disproportionately impacted by school closings and school nurse layoffs,” the National Action Network has called on the School District of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Burch says that he is considering suing the school district.
It is a travesty that there was no school nurse in attendance at Bryant Elementary School the day that Laporshia died and that the school does not seem to have had any kind of care plan in place in the event that she had a serious asthma attack. A school nurse is an essential staff member of a school. Kids don’t plan to get sick on certain days: school districts and education officials need to know that budget cuts have gone too, too far when the health of our children is compromised.
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