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Kentucky lawmakers consider funding school nurses statewide

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J. Tyler Franklin
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As the pandemic continues to surge in the state, the Kentucky Nurses Association is asking lawmakers to set aside money so every public school can have a full-time nurse.

Advocates say school nurses help students stay healthy and in class and can be an important resource for kids struggling at school or at home.

They can also help identify and address mental health issues, which school counselors say have become more frequent and intense among students during the pandemic.

Eva Stone, a nurse and health services manager for Jefferson County Public Schools, said that school nurses are especially important in Kentucky, which has higher rates of obesity and diabetes and ranks lower on measures like oral health.

“With all these negative health indicators we have in the state of Kentucky, having some systems in place to try and address these things early on can have a big impact for children educationally and for their long-term health.”

The Kentucky Nurses Association is asking the legislature to set aside $18 million over the next two years to help schools that don’t have nurses to hire one, and boost part-time school nurses up to full-time.

Currently 29 of Kentucky’s 171 school districts don’t have any school nurses. Many schools—especially ones that share a campus—split nurses between them.

Sheila Schuster, a health advocate and executive director of the Advocacy Action Network, said having a part-time nurse isn’t enough because students, parents and staff won’t get to know them.

“It’s better than nothing, but I think what happens is both the students and the school personnel and the parents aren’t sure what that schedule is,” Schuster said. “When she’s spread across several buildings on a campus, it’s just not the most effective model.”

Kentucky lawmakers have to write a new two-year budget this year. Republican leaders of the House and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear have both unveiled initial proposals, but the spending plan will be finalized in the coming weeks.

Lawmakers have more money to play with than they have in recent years because of a multibillion-dollar budget surplus estimated for the end of this fiscal year and billions of dollars from the federal coronavirus relief bill and infrastructure bill coming to Kentucky in the next few months.

Rep. Steve Riley, a Republican from Glasgow and former school administrator, said having dedicated school nurses would free up teachers and staff who end up handling health issues.

“I spent a lot of time in emergency rooms. Kids getting hurt, punching walls and doing all that kind of stuff. And in reality I needed to be at school as opposed to doing that,” Riley said.

Rep. Tina Bojanowski, a Democrat from Louisville and teacher, said she’s worked at schools that don’t have nurses, and students’ issues sometimes go unaddressed.

“All of the ‘Band-Aid and boo-boo’ issues are brought to the school secretary, and she gets really good at handling Band-Aids and boo-boos. But all of those other areas that would really help our students become more healthy and be more in the position where they can be learning won’t be happening,” Bojanowski said.

Schuster said now is the perfect time to fund the school nurses initiative.

“COVID has brought out all of these issues and exacerbated them and shown the inequities and shown the mental health and its effect on academics and physical health. We plead with you to really strongly consider putting this money in the budget,” Schuster said.

Ryland is the state capitol reporter for the Kentucky Public Radio Network, a group of public radio stations including WKU Public Radio. A native of Lexington, Ryland has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.
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