Nurses have worked in schools since the late Nineteenth Century. Schools initially began staffing nurses to inspect students for communicable diseases. Ever since, nurses have worked in schools to administer vaccines, care for sick children, assist children with special needs, and oversee and organize school health initiatives.
Since more is now known about mental health and behavioral disorders, school nurses often specialize in pediatric and mental health. In 1975, Congress enacted the Public Health Law 94-142 to increase funding and the accessibility of nurses in public schools to assist children struggling with physical and mental health problems and improve overall health in public school settings.
P.L. 94-142 was later amended to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). This law did not increase funds to hire more school nurses, but a future decision by the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that nursing services must be available to students requiring care in public schools nationwide. The IDEA requires that school districts hire nurses to evaluate students with special needs and be available to assist children with special health needs, including tracheostomy care, gastrostomy tube feeding, and catheters.
School nurses are primarily responsible for supporting learning. This done by organizing and overseeing health initiatives designed to improve student and faculty health and safety. Nurses must ensure health programs provide the following:
- Health Services – Programs offering health and nursing care for students requiring it
- Health Education – Programs to educate children and teachers about health and safety
- Healthy Environment – Programs designed to identify safety and health hazards and steps to address them
- Nutritional Services – Programs designed to provide students access to nutritious food at school
- Physical Education/Activity – Programs to provide children with physical education, activity, and recreation
- Counseling – Programs to make counseling and other mental health services accessible and make it possible to identify children requiring specialized treatment
- Parent/Community Involvement – Programs designed to improve community involvement in school districts and keep elected officials and community health departments informed about current and potential health problems
- Staff Wellness – Programs designed to address school employee health needs and improve overall health for them
As health and safety experts, school nurses act as health specialists for school districts and schools within them. They provide these services: disease assessment, development of Individualized Education Plans for special needs students, healthcare treatment, including catheterization, tracheostomy care, and gastrostomy tube feedings, screening for learning disabilities, organizing education campaigns about the dangers of tobacco and alcohol, sexually transmitted diseases, drug abuse and preventing teenage pregnancy, administering prescription drugs to children requiring them, identifying children at risk for suicide, notifying elected officials of school health problems needing to be addressed, and recommending health lessons to be taught in classrooms.
School nursing has been identified as a nursing specialty, and as a result, this field has established practice standards. Likewise, school nurses often specialize in special needs and learning disabilities, early childhood and adolescent health, and identifying suicide, eating disorder, and drug abuse risk factors. Most states mandate that school nurses satisfy certification requirements developed by state departments of health and education. A National board develops certification requirements for nurses interested in becoming nationally certified.
School nurses are staffed in schools nationwide and military bases in foreign countries. The following are schools where they’re employed:
- Elementary schools
- Junior high schools
- High schools
- Private schools
- Alternative schools
- Parochial and charter schools
- Colleges and universities
- Vocational schools
- Day care centers and pre-schools
According to the National Association of School Nurses, aspiring school nurses should earn a bachelor’s degree and satisfy national and state school nurse certification requirements.
Additionally, it’s advantageous to acquire experience in pediatric, mental, and public health and develop excellent assessment, health promotion, and referral skills. School nurses must also remain informed about national, state, and local healthcare and education laws affecting students.
School nurses typically work independently within schools to administer medical care and organize educational programs for students. Therefore, they must have excellent teaching, communication, decision-making, and analytical skills. They are frequently required to intervene on behalf of disabled and troubled students, so they must be willing to act as child advocates.
School administrators who hire nurses are often unaware about the varying types of nurse training programs. Thus, nurses licensed as registered nurses and those holding PhDs often find jobs as school nurses. The National Association of School Nurses encourages schools to hire nurses holding at least a bachelor’s degree in nursing.
School nurses typically earn annual salaries between the $20,000 to 70,000 range. However, most school nurses make anywhere from $28,000 – 49,000 a year. School nurses usually have the summer months off.