Legislator pushes for 1 nurse for every school

Published: Jan. 23, 2017 at 1:48 AM EST|Updated: Apr. 13, 2017 at 4:20 PM EDT
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By Jesse Adcock 
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Nurses around Virginia have joined together to push for a bill to ensure that a licensed nurse is on staff at every public school.

HB 1757, sponsored by Del. L. Mark Dudenhefer, R-Garrisonville, will go before a House committee on Wednesday. A group called School Nurses Taking Action rallied at the state Capitol on Tuesday in support of the measure.

"When I started working in Virginia schools, I had to walk away from my practice because I couldn't protect my license," said school nurse Dana Hollifield, a founder of the group. "They (Virginia public schools) have unlicensed, unregulated laypeople we must delegate medical procedure to."

Hollifield said that if a school health aide makes an error in treating a child's condition, it is the nurse's license that is at risk.

"To ask an unlicensed layperson to handle a medical emergency like that is unrealistic," she said.

Hollifield credited modern medicine for the increased rates at which children with diabetes, sickle cell, anaphylaxis and other chronic and potentially life-threatening conditions now attend public schools.

However, she warned that because of a lack of licensed nurses in schools, these children's lives are now in the hands of unlicensed, unregulated school health aides.

In Fairfax County, the only requirements to be a school health aide are experience working with children, a high school degree or GED diploma, and CPR certification within 30 days of employment.

In the case of a medical emergency in a school setting, "they're often it until EMTs arrive," Hollifield said. "It puts both the students and nurses at risk."

In addition, Hollifield said schools have trouble attracting nurses at all – because they don't pay nurses they would make in the private sector.

Dudenhefer said that thanks to meeting with nurses and families with children at risk throughout the summer, he has focused the bill into a form that may pass. HB 1757 would require local school boards to hire "at least one full-time equivalent school nurse position in each elementary school, middle school, and high school in the local school division and at least one full-time equivalent school nurse position per 1,000 students in grades kindergarten through 12."

"We've narrowed it down to a little over a million dollars," said Dudenhefer. "The goal is to get a bill through. Then we can beat at it every year."

Molly Alonzo, a mother of two daughters with Type 1 diabetes in Fairfax County Public Schools, said she has been fighting for more nurses in schools for more than five years.

"In Fairfax, there's one nurse for every 3,300 students, covering three to five schools each," Alonzo said.

Her husband, James Alonzo, said that because no nurse was on site, his daughters were barred from participating in certain food-related classroom activities.

Alonzo said his family has filed two civil rights complaints with federal officials over the incidents. As a result, he said that the school cancelled all food-related classroom activities and that his daughters faced resentment from their peers.

"Even though it was her condition and not her, the other students didn't see it that way," Alonzo said.

Despite having supportive principals, teachers and staff, Alonzo said the schools just don't have enough nurses to take care of schoolchildren.

"The focus is to get the resources in place, so people who want to do the right thing can do it," Alonzo said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.