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Arizona school nurses on the front lines of coronavirus face challenges

(Mesa Public Schools Photo)

PHOENIX — School nurses throughout Arizona face challenges as they’re on the front lines combating coronavirus in schools.

“We have a lot of nurses that are calling us and asking us ‘I have to put this policy or this procedure in place. I have no idea how to do this,’” said Christine Mahoney, a board member of the School Nurses Organization of Arizona.

The calls usually come from nurses in school districts that don’t have a health services director, which are becoming less common.

“Now, what we’re seeing happen is many of the nurses that are in the health offices have a school to themselves,” Mahoney said.

They report to someone with no medical background, such as a school principal or superintendent. There’s also no one they can turn to at the Arizona Department of Education.

Mahoney said the Arizona Department of Health Services has medical professionals but none of them oversee school nurses.

As a result, school nurses are having to rely on one another for advice on best practices and how to implement certain protocols.

Mahoney said over the summer, a school nurse in Peoria started a leadership group so that school nurses from across the Valley could talk about what they planned to do to mitigate the spread of coronavirus in their schools.

She said the group was a good way for school nurses “to be unified in our approach to this but also to support each other, because we know it’s difficult.”

It has been even more challenging for health assistants in schools because their licenses limit what they can do.

Robin Schaeffer, executive director of the Arizona Nurses Association, said health assistants “are a wonderful member of the team” but don’t have the same level of training and experience as a registered nurse.

“If I was a health assistant, I’d feel very uncomfortable being the first line in a school when there’s not a school nurse around,” she said.

Schaeffer said she’d like to see schools hire more registered nurses, saying they are the “gold standard for the health and safety of our children.”

In Arizona, public schools are not required to have a nurse on campus. There also are no state mandates on who can work in a school health office.

A state bill in 2008 would’ve required districts to have a registered nurse at every public school, but it did not provide funding and it would’ve let school districts opt out. The bill failed to pass.

Schaeffer said given the lack of legislative action, it’s up to school districts to make it a funding priority to hire more nurses.

“I really think nurses should be top of mind, especially during this pandemic,” she said.

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