- To help your kids through the school year, you should reach out to the school nurse before your child becomes ill.
- School nurses also advise turning in key paperwork so that they are allowed to administer OTC medication in case your child becomes ill at school.
- Additionally, parents of children with chronic illnesses should make a point every year of visiting to make sure everyone knows what issues the child faces.
With the cold and flu season in full swing, your child may be visiting the school nurse with symptoms.
However, in addition to managing students’ illnesses, the nurse is doing a lot more.
“We are responsible for everyone in the building — students, staff, and visitors. We’re on high alert a lot,” Robin Cogan, RN, school nurse in New Jersey and faculty member at Rutgers School of Nursing-Camden, told Healthline. “I like to call us the Chief Wellness Officer, even though we don’t officially have that title.”
From assessing illnesses and injuries to helping care for children with chronic conditions like diabetes, the nurse’s day is packed.
If you’re worried your child could be overlooked, here’s how you can work with your school nurse to ensure your child gets the support they need.
Linda Mendonca, RN, president-elect of the National Association of School Nurses, says get to know your school nurse’s name, whether your child has a chronic condition or not.
“Just because your child doesn’t plan to see the nurse regularly for a condition doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know the school nurse because there may be a time when your child doesn’t feel well,” Mendonca told Healthline.
Cogan agrees, noting that the school nurse is the key person between home and school, home and the physician’s office, and the classroom and nurse’s office.
“We are that soft place to land in the school. We don’t give grades, and the kids know there is a caring person there who can help them. Anything that a parent can share with a school nurse that will add to the success of the student is [helpful],” said Cogan.
By building a rapport, Cogan said the parent can learn what the nurse does and when and why the nurse may send a student home.
“Our goal is to keep our students safe, healthy, and ready to learn. Part of that is keeping them in their seats in the classroom,” she said.
However, when a child is injured or showing signs of illness, such as vomiting, diarrhea, or fever, they may be sent home, depending on the school’s policies.
“Some of these stomach bugs or something like strep or pink eye can run rampant through school, so part of our job is surveillance, and we have to make sure the kids in school are healthy and not contagious,” said Cogan.
Mendonca says at the beginning of the school year, inform the nurse of anything that has happened over the summer that may impact your child, and continue to do so throughout the school year.
“Things will happen with a child over the weekend or overnight, and if it’s something the school nurse should be aware of that could possibly impact their child’s school day, it’s helpful for the nurse to know,” she said.
Because policies that determine which forms of communication (phone, text, or email) are allowed vary from school to school, Mendonca says ask your nurse which form of communication you should use.
And in addition to medical information, be sure to share experiences that may affect a child’s emotional and mental well-being.
“There was a study done that found [school nurses] spend more than 35 percent of our time on mental health issues. We find that kids will come [to us] with somatic complaints like body ache, headache, stomachache, but if you dig deeper, there may be an underlying issue like anxiety or depression, so we have to spend the time trying to understand the child through a trauma responsive lens,” said Cogan.
This may involve determining if the child is going through an experience like being bullied or dealing with family trauma, such as loss of a loved one, a parent losing a job, or parents going through a divorce.
In some instances, depending on staffing in the school, the child may be referred to a mental health professional.
“Some schools have social workers or school psychologists, and in the upper secondary schools, guidance counselors. Sometimes social workers have two schools and may not be in the school every day, but can be called for a crisis. School nurses deal with a lot of mental health issues and can counsel, but for the most part will reach out to the school psychologist or social worker who is available to help,” said Mendonca.
Mendonca says sending in up-to-date paper work is essential.
“Most schools send home a health update form. Again, this varies but some schools will give [children] an over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen or antacid … but they do need a [standing doctor’s order and] parent’s permission to do that. … It’s very important that parents return [signed forms] to the school nurse so they have what they need to take care of your child,” she said.
If your child has a chronic condition, sending necessary supplies to schools should be priority. For instance, insulin or blood monitoring devices for children with diabetes, antihistamines and epinephrine for kids with allergies, and inhalers for those with asthma.
Ensuring your child is current with physicals and immunizations is also crucial, says Cogan.
“Students need proper documentation to take medication at school and on trips. Proper documentation for medication has to be signed by the doctors and parents,” Cogan said. “We don’t want to have to exclude kids [from school or attending field trips], but sometimes that exclusion date finally gets parents into action because parents have a lot going on and unless there is an impeding deadline, it can fall off their radar quickly.”
Because children spend much of their waking hours at school, Cogan says parents of children with chronic conditions or special needs should advocate for their safety at school.
“Have face-to-face meetings with the school nurse and teacher so we are on the same page for your child,” she said.
Each time your child switches to a new classroom, Cogan says ask for another meeting.
“Every single person who [comes in contact with] your child needs to know if they have a chronic health condition or certain medical needs. Nurses keep medical information confidential. We can only tell the staff so much because it’s private, but a parent can share as much as they want to with staff and if it comes from the parent, it’s so much more impactful,” said Cogan.
This goes for any social or emotional concerns, too. For instance, Cogan says she has had students come to her to talk about homelessness, food insecurity, gender and sexuality issues, as well as pregnancy.
“These are real life issues that come to school,” said Cogan. “Our role is all about health and safety, and the more information that we have from the expert, who is the parent, the better we can serve your child.”
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.