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A nurse in every CMS school gathering momentum

The movement to staff a nurse in each of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s 160 schools appears to be gaining momentum.

County commissioners raised the issue to a high priority last year, adding 11 new nurses, and now County Manager Dena Diorio is considering recommending they spend $2.5 million to hire 32 more to meet the goal of placing a nurse in every school.

Even if that many nurses were added, though, the county would still fall below the national standard of one nurse for every 750 students set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where new Mecklenburg Health Director Marcus Plescia worked before he was hired in January.

It’s the issue that Diorio has heard about the most during her first three months on the job. “I’ve gotten 300 emails on school nurses,” she said. “Nothing else comes close.”

The movement got a boost from Plescia, who urged commissioners at their recent budget retreat to hire the additional school nurses. He said the county would see public health benefits beyond reacting to playground accidents or colds, or looking after students with such chronic conditions as asthma, allergies and diabetes.

“A nurse in each school would allow us to take a much more comprehensive approach to child health,” Plescia said Thursday. “As a society, children are our most valuable investment, and we must do everything we can to prepare them for healthy and productive lives.”

Diorio said she’s strongly considering more school nurses as she and her staff put together a recommended budget – at a time when the county is expecting a surplus of about $35 million. She will unveil her recommended budget to commissioners on May 20.

“It’s probably a good time to start thinking about ramping up” the school nurse program, she said. “It’s going to go into the hopper with all the other requests, but it is clearly a priority for the community, it’s a priority for the Health Department and a priority for the board – so it ranks high.”

Reviving the goal

Meeting the stricter CDC standard is ultimately the goal of N.C. Parents Advocating for School Health, the Charlotte-based group of parents pushing for more nurses and responsible for most of the emails to Diorio.

She said she learned an important lesson in the fight over the 2011 revaluation: It only takes a few people to build “a critical mass” and that the county ought to take these issues seriously.

Teri Saurer founded the group two years ago when her younger daughter, who has severe food allergies, started school at Ballantyne Elementary. Though her older daughter was already enrolled there, that’s when she found out the school has a school nurse for only half the week.

Saurer said she revived an advocacy campaign orchestrated by the Junior League of Charlotte in 2005 that won a commitment from commissioners to add 25 nurses a year until CMS met the national standard.

The district went from 48 to 117 nurses, but as the economy stalled in 2009, the effort stalled. “The student population continued to increase, but not one more school nurse was added,” she said.

Until last year, when the 11 were added after commissioner Kim Ratliff championed the cause, getting it raised to a top priority by the board. The district currently has 128 school nurses.

Meantime, Saurer’s group has grown and so has pressure on officials. Carrie Merner, a board member, got involved because her 5-year-old son Grant is headed for kindergarten next school year at Davidson Elementary, a school with a nurse only two days a week and every other Friday.

Grant has suffered seven anaphylactic reactions to severe food allergies. “My child has come near death seven times,” said Merner, a former teacher. “He doesn’t need to literally eat the food. He can touch and have a reaction. If the nurse isn’t there, that’s too much responsibility for teachers who are there to educate.

“They’re not experts on these types of things or broken arms or concussions.”

Nurse shortage?

Ratliff wants a nurse in every school – but cautions that all of the additional 32 nurses might not come in this year’s budget.

“The need is acknowledged,” Ratliff said. “It’s just a matter of getting it done.”

Board ChairmanTrevor Fuller said he’d like to see the goal reached this year.

“I liked what the health director (Plescia) said about the added public health benefits of having a nurse in each school,” Fuller said. “They can be the eyes and ears of public health concerns – the early warning systems. ... Even if putting a nurse in every school isn’t in the county manager’s budget, I would support making it a part of our budget.”

Fellow Democratic commissioner Pat Cotham also supports more nurses, “but we’ll have to see what the other needs are.” She said the shortage of nurses nationwide could make it difficult to hire 32 additional ones. Two years ago, she said, the county had money for more nurses, but “we were unable to recruit them. (Plescia) sounded pretty confident we could get qualified nurses, so we’ll see.”

She suggested that retired nurses might want to volunteer at schools.

Republican commissioner Matthew Ridenhour said he’d thought there already was a nurse in every school until Ratliff brought up the issue last year.

He, too, favors reaching that goal.

“I look for us to work toward that goal of one per school sooner rather than later,” he said. “But it will take a chunk of change, and we’ve got other worthy programs to fund. But half this year and half next year might be doable.”

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