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School-nurse funding trimmed statewide

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Photo by Hugh Osteen

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Officials are pleased that funding for school nurses in Georgia, this coming year, may be more than they expected, even though it will be less than in recent years.

State legislators now plan to reduce the budget for school nurses by 4 percent, rather the 10 percent that had been discussed earlier in the budgeting process for the fiscal year 2012 Budget, according to Lisa Byrns, president of the Georgia Association of School Nurses (GASN).

Byrns, who is also a school nurse for Glynn County Schools, in southeast Georgia, said she is grateful that funding cuts were minimized. She said cuts to school-nurse programs can be problematic, and pose far-reaching challenges in any given school community.

"Georgia already ranks number 45 in the nation with regard to the student-to-school nurse ratio, according to the National Association of School Nurses," Byrns said.

A scaled-down budget for school-nurse programs leaves less money to pay for nurses, she explained, and could mean fewer nurses to care for students needing medical attention during the school day. "Salaries are pretty sad in our state, anyway, and there is no standard salary," Byrns said. "What I've seen statewide, all school districts have seen cuts to some degree. There are 160 school districts in the state.

"The budget is approximately $26 million, but we've lost a little over $4 million the last five years," she continued. "That's not good for children."

Byrns said the result of less funding, and fewer school nurses, is fewer screenings for vision and hearing problems, and limited expert aid during medical emergencies. "We're constantly here for emergencies," she said. "We're seeing kids in high school with high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. Teachers and general staff are not trained to be nurses, they are trained to teach."

The GASN President said school-nurse duties have increased in recent years, even as budgets have been trimmed. "We've seen increased workload and responsibility," Byrns said. "Some nurses are covering multiple schools. And if we have to be out, there is no substitute for us."

The Henry County School System is an example of budget challenges in a down economy. The school system's revenues continue to shrink, and have prompted school officials to use different methods of providing the services.

The system currently employs 15 full-time, and three half-time nurses, or licensed practice nurses, according to April Brown, the system's administrative services director. Brown said Henry also employs 15 full-time, and three half-time clinic aides. Full-time nurses, or clinic aides, are assigned to cover two schools, while half-time nurses, or clinic aides, are assigned to cover one school.

"Hiring 'clinic aides' has allowed us to reduce our costs as the state continues to reduce our state revenue for the nursing program," said Tony Pickett, Henry's executive assistant to the Office of the Superintendent. "Our current state allotment for 'nursing services' is $593,885. We will spend approximately $622,500 for nurses this year."

Last year -- in response to budget challenges -- the Clayton County Board of Education approved a plan to replace all 37 registered school nurses in the county's schools, with 63, cheaper, health-care professionals, as part of a round of budget cuts.

Shereka Willis, a licensed practical nurse, who provides medical support for roughly 900 students at Red Oak Elementary School in Stockbridge, said she has multiple duties. "I have three diabetic elementary school kids here," Willis said. "They really need the help, as far as administering the insulin, keeping their glucose checked, and monitoring their diet."

Willis said she administers medications to more than 60 children at Red Oak on a daily basis. She said she helps with seasonal illnesses and conditions, such as asthma and allergies, and has contact with parents. She also tracks required immunization records.

"That's a very, very strenuous part of my job," she said. "Some have high blood pressure and migraine headaches. On occasion, we have stomach bugs going around. I also help look out for the teachers. I help out where I am needed."

Heather Carter, the parent of a third-grader at Bethlehem Elementary School in Locust Grove, said she is adamant about her 8-year-old daughter's medical care during school hours.

"My daughter has Mitochondrial Disease, and she requires 24-hour monitoring," Carter said. "She's very medically fragile. But she's a happy child. She loves to be at school, and she's making great friends. And that's because a school nurse is there."

School officials in Henry County said there has been no decision made on how the school system will offset the 4-percent state funding cut in the coming year's budget. The school system's budget is expected to be set early this summer.