Healthy students are better learners. Parents already know their kids need to eat healthy food, get enough sleep, and limit screen time, but these days your child’s school experience may be very different from what you remember. We asked Beth Mattey, president of the National Association of School Nurses, for some pointers.
1. Find out who’s in charge of school health care
A quarter of all public schools have no nurse at all, and another 30 percent have only a part-time nurse. (In private schools, nurses are a rarity.) Without a full-time nurse on staff, communication between parents and the nurse, teachers, and administrators is key. Beth Mattey says, “Parents need to ask, ‘Is there a registered professional on campus? If not, who’s going to take care of my child?’” Find out who that person is and schedule a meeting.
Parents of children with chronic diseases like asthma, diabetes, or life-threatening allergic reactions need to ensure that an action plan is on file. “It identifies who to go to. What are the symptoms? What kind of medicine does this child get? Where’s the medicine? All of those things are so important.” This is critical because laws covering who can — and can’t — give medicine or care vary in different states and school districts. And don’t forget to ask about the school’s plan for giving meds on a field trip or during after-school athletics.
2. A simple headache could mean a serious problem
While falls are the most common cause of concussions in young children, sports-related injuries to the head are on the rise. You may not even realize your child is hurt, because some symptoms may not show up for hours or even days. Children with concussions may take longer to recover than adults and may have other symptoms like sensitivity to light or difficulty concentrating. Check out the CDC’s “Heads Up” program for more information.
Kids also often complain of a headache to the nurse when they are dehydrated or hungry. Consider sending your child to school with a water bottle and make sure he or she has enough snacks to stay fueled until lunchtime.
3. Nurses provide mental health services
Little-known fact: School nurses spend about a third of their time on mental health services. Children and teens frequently come to nurses complaining of a headache or stomachache, but that’s often how anxiety looks in kids.
Bullying is a common problem — 21 percent of children have been bullied on school property and 16 percent say they are victims of cyber-bullying. “Kids don’t want to think they’re being bullied or they may not know they’re being bullied,” says Mattey. So it’s important for parents, teachers, and others to watch for signs of anxiety and communicate what they see.
4. Lice are not an emergency
Yes, lice are icky, but they’re not serious. Plus, it’s rare to catch them at school. That’s why experts no longer recommend keeping kids with lice out of school. Mattey says, “The stigma attached to being identified with head lice can be traumatizing to a child and is unnecessary. We do not recommend screening children at school for head lice.”
If your child has lice or nits (lice eggs), you’ll likely get a call from the school. As for treatment — there are many pesticides available, though a new study reveals that head lice are resistant to medicated shampoos in 25 states. (You can’t kill all the nits with medicine anyway, so you’ll need to pick at least some out by hand.) According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, removing lice with a fine-toothed comb is a nontoxic option.
5. School-based health care is on the rise
There are nearly 2,000 school-based health centers in the US that provide primary care, mental health services, nutrition counseling, and health education to students, families, and others in the community. These on-campus clinics are operated as a partnership between the school and a local health department or community organization and staffed by nurse practitioners, physician assistants, school nurses, and counselors.
More than half of these health centers use electronic medical records, and most bill at least one insurance program, including Medicaid. It’s just like your doctor’s office, but more convenient for busy families. Use this tool to find SBHC locations in your state.
6. Your child can get vaccinated at school
Vaccine clinics sponsored by state or county health departments are popping up at schools across the country, especially in the fall. They offer seasonal vaccines like the flu, or catch-up vaccines for teens and adolescents. “It’s a great idea because there are barriers to getting health care in certain situations: transportation, time off from work, leaving school. Lots of things that may prevent a child from getting vaccinations.”
Flu season in the United States typically starts in October and can last until May. One study found that offering flu shots at school increased the vaccination rate by 13 percent, and that’s good for any babies or older adults in your household as well. Contact your school or county health department to find out about vaccine clinics in your area.
7. Sex education. There’s an app for that.
Modern sex education programs are using technology to educate and inform. “Sex education needs to be ongoing and it needs to be comprehensive,” says Mattey. “It needs to be something that has been proven to work and to talk about healthy sexuality and respect and relationships.”
The California Family Health Council’s Teensource.org sends weekly sex education tips and advice via text. It also helps teens find clinics and services in their area. In North Carolina, a nonprofit called Sexual Health Initiatives offers the BrdsNBz text line. Teens can ask a question and get a response from a trained health educator within 24 hours. Talk to your kids and their teachers to find out what apps, if any, they’re using.