Three years ago, Rory Staunton dove for a basketball in gym class and cut his arm. The cut became infected, and the infection spread through his body. Within a matter of days, the 12-year old had passed away from a medical condition known as sepsis, a complication of serious infections.
His death drew attention to a hole in the medical system — and to a lack of preparedness among educators to identify and deal with impending medical emergencies. His death, in that sense, is unfortunately not unique.
As schools have been forced to make cutbacks to school nurses and health services — if they were offered in the first place — the ability to respond to emergency medical situations is on increasingly unstable footing. The cuts have limited schools’ abilities to fulfill one of their lesser-known responsibilities: student health.
“In general, the public thinks of schools as a place kids go to learn,” said David Lohrmann, chair of Indiana University's Applied Health Science Department and a former district administrator and wrestling coach. “In general, they don’t think of schools as major healthcare delivery institutions. But they have responsibilities around it.”
The most obvious of those include ensuring students are immunized and monitoring their medication intake and safety during the school day. But schools are also responsible for responding to acute illness and injury, as occurred with Rory Staunton, and ensuring the campus is safe and sanitary. Even without a school nurse present, administrators will have to find a way to fulfill those responsibilities.
Lohrmann suggests that schools take a comprehensive approach to making sure they’re ready for medical emergencies — as well as more quotidian coughs and bruises. Here are five tips for doing so.
Find the gaps
Addressing medical emergencies requires first knowing what you’re not prepared for. Lohrmann recommends using a school health report card like the one he developed for his book, "Creating a Healthy School Using the Healthy School Report Card," or needs assessments developed by a local agency to figure out where the holes are in school preparedness. That might mean a medical emergency preparedness plan or an adequate system for making sure students are getting their medication.
Train teachers and administrators
Most administrators get some sort of safety briefing as part of their licensing, but Lohrmann says many lack the training to navigate the complicated web of student health, insurance, and potential options. That’s particularly because there’s little incentive to do so until there’s an emergency.
“Your health and safety scores don’t show up in your school paper like your test scores do,” he said.
Seek out community partners
Without the training to create robust student health or response plans themselves, local health providers and public health services can be a valuable resource. They may be able to help with planning, contribute nurses, or even offer offsite health services inside school buildings.
Get creative with funds and time
Those partnerships can help schools with personnel and expertise, but to pay for it, schools may need to seek outside grants. Organizations like Action for Healthy Kids, the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools, or the American Medical Association may be able to help provide funding or point administrators toward grants.
Think beyond the traditional school nurse
While administrators may see school nurses as providing a contained and replaceable service, Lohrmann says they can be an integral part of the school community. “They can’t just wait in the clinic and wait for kids to come in,” he said.
They can help schools draft USDA-mandated wellness plans, provide basic staff healthcare, and help train other educators on crucial medical skills. Schools can also use digital or cloud-based software, like Healthy eTools for Schools, to allow nurses to do more. One nurse estimated she saved two weeks a semester using tech to do paperwork and automate mandated reports.
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