Chances are that if a disease like Swine Flu hit area schools, a school nurse would be the first to recognize the symptoms.
In addition to providing immediate medical attention, the school nurse would also be the one to administer medications for the treatment of diabetes, asthma, food allergies, seizures – or any number of other life-threatening conditions.
"There's a lot that we do – it's not just for emergencies," said Pearline Lee, 80, who's been a nurse for 53 years, and spent the past 10 years at the School Without Walls [SWW] in Northwest. She added however, that like other public school districts across the country, District of Columbia Public Schools [DCPS] are feeling the crunch of municipal budget restrictions.
"Yes, there is a shortage of school nurses, [when it comes to juggling part-time medical staff]," Lee said.
And, because most school systems are managing with one or two nurses who work part-time on swing shifts, there's concern that students could be at risk for inadequate medical attention.
"The problem [for schools] appears to be a shortage of adequately funded positions for school nurses," Amy Garcia, former executive director for the Silver Spring, Md.-based National Association of School Nurses [NASN], said in a previously published interview.
Garcia alluded to a 2010 NASN survey which reported the ratio of nurses per student as one for every 1,151 students. An NASN study released the following year noted that only 45 percent of schools across the country have at least one full-time nurse on staff, in comparison to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation of one nurse per 750 students.
To that end, Lee's position as a full-time health care provider at SWW, which enrolls 552 students, appears within guidelines. However, in many states there are no standards for nursing services in schools or no mandate for them to be on staff.
"D.C. requires that there be a nurse for students a minimum of 24 hours a week,"said Lee who is at SWW all day, five days a week. "Some [nurses] work full-time or part-time based on needs and availability."
But while Dan Domenech, executive director of the Association of School Administrators in Alexandria, Va., agrees that there has been a shortage of school nurses, he said when it comes to handing out pink slips, they are the last in line.
"School districts have had to make considerable cuts in their budgets [for the past four years], and according to surveys we've done on school districts going back to 2008, the latest one actually shows in terms of personnel cuts, school nurses have been the least affected," Domenech said during a recent NASN radio broadcast.
DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson had little to say about a shortage, referring inquiries to the D.C. Department of Health.
"They manage our school nursing contract and assignments," Henderson, 42, said in an email to The Washington Informer. "This is more of a Department of Health [DOH] issue. From our end, there aren't budget constraints limiting the hiring of nurses."
There are 136 public schools in the District, and DOH spokeswoman Najma Roberts said that, "all DCPS [buildings] currently have at least one part-time nurse [on staff]."
Nonetheless, Misty Gallagher, 32, of Northeast, said the District should think twice about any plans for cutbacks.
Gallagher, who has an 11-year-old daughter enrolled in the DCPS system, also said she cringes at the thought that her child might not receive proper medical attention in the event of an emergency. In many instances, faculty and staff like teachers, paraprofessionals or secretaries can't step in because they're not qualified.
"My daughter has a [non-life-threatening] condition where she needs to take her medication on a regular basis," Gallagher said. "We're good about making sure she takes [the medicine] before she goes off to school, but what if something happens at school – she forgets to bring it with her. Will a nurse be in place [to determine the best course of action] or will her teacher or principal know how to react?"