School nurses are on the front lines, but when one thinks about the nursing profession, many people do not see or understand these nurses’ plight. That’s why NYSNA sat down with several nurses who work in school settings to learn more about their day-to-day work and what they need to thrive. Below is a lightly edited interview with Valerie Deacon, RN, at the Alleghany Health Office with the Lindenhurst School District.
Can you tell our readers about your background and work?
I have been a registered nurse for close to 30 years and have worked in the school setting for just as long. I have worked two jobs at the same time for many years especially in the beginning of my career when I was seeking to supplement my school nursing salary. I have worked in other facilities as a nursing coordinator and a nursing supervisor.
How long have you been with your current employer?
I have been working in the Lindenhurst School District for over 20 years.
Please describe an average day.
Every day, school nurses deal with the added workload brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Each morning, we respond to new email and phone messages from parents and staff regarding COVID-19 test results. This includes discussing who is able to return to school and who must quarantine. We respond to a number of messages that begin with some variation of “I just have a question, if you can call me.”
Each school day, school nurses care for students and staff. We never know who will walk in the door or what is just down the hallway. It could be a teacher passed out on the floor, a student who may be having an allergic reaction or one who is exhibiting new COVID-19-like symptoms. It is so different from working in other facilities or in a hospital where you have other nursing support to help make immediate decisions on emergent situations. Our days and our work are unique and unpredictable.
What is unique about school nursing?
School nursing is a specialized practice that requires a comprehensive understanding of health conditions, nursing care and public health and a working knowledge of the education system and laws. I love school nursing. School nurses are a resource people tap to find answers according to the ever-changing guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and the local Department of Health; the two agencies’ guidance does not always align. Most people in school buildings seek out the school nurse for answers. After all, for 20 years, nursing has been the most trusted profession.
What are you hearing from other school nurses?
I am a member of several national and statewide nursing forums. The common theme is that school health nursing is a challenge. Many nurses in these forums note that they need better pay, proper staffing and a secretary. Many are burning the candle at both ends. Some districts have given their nurses stipends or even raises based on added COVID-19 duties, but many have not. They are told they are “valuable and necessary,” but it’s hard to believe this when nurses learn that stipends were given to other disciplines but not to the frontline school nurse. Last year, the New York State Education Department suspended all screenings in the health office due to COVID-19. This year, despite larger COVID-19 cases, it has resumed all screenings (vision, hearing, scoliosis) for the 2021-2022 school year. I would ask why is the NYSED not requiring physicians to do the screenings? This is part of the required NYS health examination for grades K, 1, 3 and 5? NYSED requires a physical exam for these years already, and many times the physician does not do the screening, thereby putting it on the school nurse to complete.
Do you feel heard?
I must say that here in Lindenhurst, we are blessed to have an administrator who hears us. We have been given substitute nursing help when it is available, secretaries/aides, a supply of personal protective equipment, and recently, the school district hired separate contact tracers. Our treatment underscores the fact that it is imperative to have an administrator who is solution-oriented and committed to the nursing practice.
What can our union do?
NYSNA can do what they’re doing here: advocate and educate the public, governing bodies and administrators about the role of the school nurse. NYSNA school nurse members need a larger voice, and NYSNA can be a large uniting force for all school nurses across the state.
You recently worked with your colleagues to author a resolution at NYSNA’s 2021 Convention to support school nurses’ in their fight for working conditions. What was the essence of the resolution?
Among other things, the resolution urged NYSNA to petition the appropriate governing body to set regulations requiring school districts provide a minimum of one (1) registered professional nurses in every school building, continue fighting for fair contracts that inspire other nurses to seek work in school districts and remain in the profession, and educate the public on and the importance of registered professional nurses in school districts. The resolution also asked NYSNA to continue creating platforms for nurses to provide first person accounts of staffing deficiencies in New York’s schools and provide expertise on the need for guaranteed minimum registered nurse staffing standards in schools.
“It is so different from working in other facilities or in a hospital where you have other nursing support to help make immediate decisions.” - Valerie Deacon, RN