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Check up on Lakewood's school nurses

Local levy supports 89% of school nursing corps funding 1 nurse per school

If ever there was a time for a nurse in every school, a pandemic is it.

From contact tracing to COVID testing, Lakewood’s nurses have done it all since the pandemic forced education online a year ago. The recent shift to in-person learning has only intensified the nurses’ contribution to the wellbeing of their students.

“Before COVID, my day was filled with student care from managing plans for students with severe health concerns like diabetes or life-threatening allergies to playground bumps and scrapes,” said Jessica Dunc, RN at Lakewood Elementary School.

“Now I’m nearly non-stop on the phone talking to families about COVID symptoms, contact tracing or arranging for virus testing,” said Dunc. Lakewood participates in a state Department of Health testing program for school nurses to test students and staff as well as their families. Nurses swab mouths then send off the samples to a lab that produces results within 24-48 hours.

“It really helps keep children in school,” Dunc explained. Without the tests, children with a stuffy nose or other symptom that may be related to COVID would miss 10 days of school. With a negative test result and the absence of symptoms, those children can be back in school in a couple of days. Lakewood was one of the first Snohomish County school districts to join the state testing program. Families have expressed appreciation for the school testing sites.

Jen Rucker, RN at English Crossing Elementary School, said she learned about pandemics in nursing school along with responding to other crises but never thought she would be living though one. “It’s crazy to think a virus could do all this,” Rucker said. “We’re doing our best to work with everyone. I respect and understand that some families may not wear masks but at school it is required. Overall, our families have been great to work with.” Along with ensuring social distancing and promoting proper hand washing, school nurses are pivotal in outfitting classrooms with personal protective equipment and train staff on how to use that PPE.

Lakewood is unique

Lakewood schools are unique in their commitment to school nurses serving on each campus. Not many public school systems share that dedication to student health. In fact, state officials would only allocate a third of a single nurse for all of Lakewood’s 2,400+ students. Lakewood’s nursing corps is 89% financed by local levy dollars paid by the community through the Education Programs and Operations Levy. A request to voters asking to restore local funding is underway this spring. Without voter approval the nursing ranks will be cut in half for the next school year.

“I don’t even know how it would work,” said Dunc about losing a nurse for each school. In addition, nurses offer care to children with fragile medical needs such as breathing with the help of a ventilator or mobility that requires specialized equipment. Lakewood, like all public schools, offer a quality education to every child. In addition to kindergarten through 12th grade studies, a developmental preschool is offered to help students with exceptional barriers to their learning, be ready to start school with their peers.

Teachers need to teach

“Teachers need to teach,” said Rucker of the importance of a nurse at each school. “So many needs can be caught,” she said of the expertise a nurse brings to a school. “Everything we do is directed to the medical side of the student,” Rucker explained. “From hunger to abuse to life threatening conditions or allergies, we are trained to mitigate that concern so the child can learn.”

Mental health is also an area where school nurses make a difference. Even during non-pandemic times, mental health is a rising concern for youth. In the most recent statewide survey, the number of young people considering suicide has risen exponentially. And that data was prior to COVID 19. Since the pandemic shuttered most places youth typically gathered with their peers, officials believe student mental health has deteriorated even further. Gaps in social and emotional learning are as real as holes in their academics.

Annette Ziegler, RN at Lakewood Middle School agrees. “Our job is helping kids get past whatever barrier is getting in their way to learn,” she said. Pre-pandemic times would bring 40-50 students a day to the middle school health room. Sometimes their needs were very clear but many times it took a bit of detective work to find what was needed. “They would say they didn’t feel good and needed something to feel better but did not know exactly what that something was. It would take some exploring with the school counselor and others to find the right answer,” Ziegler explained.

Some of those situations are medical that only a nurse would be able to address, she added. “It is not always a situation that staff can address,” she added. “It takes the training and experience only a nurse can provide.” In crisis situations Lakewood nurses have an alert system that brings a nursing colleague to assist within 2 minutes to any campus.

Joy in working with students and families

Of course, with last month’s shift to part time campus learning, the numbers of students each day is reduced but the needs have increased by both students and staff. “This has been so hard on our teachers,” Ziegler commented. Dunc agrees saying it has been a tough year for everyone. Lakewood students are participating in a Panorama survey of social and emotional needs to help inform school leaders what support is most needed.

In addition, nurses oversee the standard health screenings for vision and hearing, help families connect to services like the Marysville Food Bank, Operation School Bell that provides clothing and Holiday Helpers that brings gifts to children whose families are not able to provide during the winter holidays.

At the end of the day, Zeigler’s favorite part of her job is getting to know the people in her school. “Getting to know them and their health concerns so then I can help their teacher best serve them,” she said with pride of her role as a school nurse.

“Our families have been so wonderful rolling with all changes,” she said. Jen Rucker agreed. “There is so much joy that comes with working with our students and families,” Rucker said. Jen Dunc added that she “absolutely loves” being a school nurse. “It certainly is never boring,” she laughed as she considered these pandemic times.