School nurses do much more than hand out ice packs. They often deal with chronic physical and mental health conditions of students, and they inform the entire school community about public health issues.
But in Illinois, more than half of schools don’t have a dedicated nurse and many have to share nurses, putting all of that important work at risk.
Morning Shift talks with the head of the Illinois Association of School Nurses about the lack of nurses in under-resourced schools, as well as programs her high school in the southwest suburbs has developed to support students with mental health issues.
On Treating the Mental Health of Students
Linda Vollinger: A lot of times kids come into the office and they may not have a diagnosis of anything. But they’ll come in and they’ll say they’re not feeling well—upset stomach, headaches, just kind of general complaints. And then as you talk to the student, you can kind of tease out what’s really going on, and a lot of times it’s anxiety or stress. So what you would think would be very benign complaints…what’s causing it is really the anxiety.
A Typical Day as a Nurse at Stagg High School
Vollinger: My background is emergency nursing and trauma. I often tell people that I’m busier here than I was in the emergency room, especially since we have 2,364 students here in the building to one nurse. So it could be a lot of PE injuries, during the flu season we have cold and flu, allergies. And then we also have emergencies, whether it’s broken bones, or if they’ve fallen in gym or whatever. It’s never the same every day. It’s never dull. Depending on the week we can average about 80 to 85 students a day.
On the Intervention Room, a Quiet Space for Students to Readjust after Time Away from School
Vollinger: [The Intervention Room] was actually born out of…discipline cases. It started as a result of Senate Bill 100, [which] kind of regulated how students can be disciplined as far as suspensions and days out of school, and trying to keep them in school, so they’re getting an education, and not just home on a suspension. And that kind of has evolved into using it for a variety of reasons. If we have students who have had an extended absence, whether they’ve had a surgery or a hospitalization for whatever reason, it’s a way to transition them back into school and decrease the stress of coming back after being gone for a lengthy time. They can get caught up on their work, [and] they have access to a teacher and a teacher’s assistant… so they’re not just kind of thrown out into that 2300 plus student body.
Tony Sarabia: What about students who’ve been out of school for a while because of a mental health issue? Is there a stigma about having to spend a few days in the intervention room?
Vollinger: I don’t think so because the student body doesn’t know why students are in there. They just know it’s a place where they can go to ease back into their classes and to get assistance… They almost look at it as a relief.
GUEST: Linda Vollinger, nurse at Stagg High School in Palos Hills, president of the Illinois Association of School Nurses
LEARN MORE: Teens are anxious and depressed, and turning to the school nurse for help. But most Illinois schools don’t have one. (Chicago Tribune 8/23/18)
Illinois Association of School Nurses website
2015 National Association of School Nurses survey of nurses