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With growing student needs in Loudoun, school nurses provide essential care

As the number of students with special needs and economic challenges grows faster than it ever has in Loudoun County and the U.S., the essential roles of school nurses are becoming more important and more demanding.

Modern school nurses must work to provide essential medical care and resources to children from families without the means to do so themselves. They are on the front lines of defense for tackling budding mental health issues in students. They teach students to embrace a healthy lifestyle. Above all else, they are solely responsible for the health and well-being of hundreds of students each school day.

“There are times I feel like no one realizes everything that's involved with being a school nurse,” said Loudoun Valley High School Nurse Nancy Nesselrodt. “We're always busy every moment of every day.”

On top of the day-to-day demands of keeping the school's immunization records, cataloging emergency contacts, seeing up to 60 sick students a day and communicating with parents, school nurses often go above and beyond their regular duties to make sure all of their students are healthy.

The number of students with special needs is growing faster than the rate of overall enrollment, according to Loudoun Public Schools Superintendent Eric Williams. The growth rate for impoverished students is over 100 percent. Those students require more resources.

“School nurses address the social determinants of health, such as income, housing, transportation, employment, access to health insurance and environmental health,” according to the National Association of School Nurses.

Social determinants are identified to be the cause of 80 percent of health concerns, according to a study by the University of Wisconsin.

“We really are seeing more kids with more needs,” said Terri Thomson, who's been a school nurse at Harper Park Middle School for 13 years. “Different disasters bring more kids to the area. The hurricanes in Louisiana brought us more kids this year.”

Loudoun school nurses work with parent liaisons, teachers, school counselors and other members of the community to help students in need.

“Today I was trying to find glasses for a kid,” said Thomson. “Kids will come here who just moved here and they have absolutely nothing. Once you see the kids, you just fall in love with them.”

Thomson and other school nurses refer impoverished families to places where they can get free immunizations, serious medical care, glasses, food and clothing.

The LCPS Student Health Services department's protocols and procedures are looked to as a successful model for other Virginia school systems. According to Jeannie Kloman, head of the department, LCPS health services is more richly staffed than most other jurisdictions.

“Loudoun County is really renown for having great care plans for kids with chronic issues,” said Thomson. “People look to us because they know we are very progressive with that part of nursing.”

Every LCPS middle and high school has a registered nurse. The elementary schools are staffed by health clinic specialists who are supervised by resource nurses.

Each school nurse essentially runs a one-stop-shop mini medical center on their own every day.

“The hardest thing about being a nurse within a school system is that you are the only medical person in the building,” said Nesselrodt.

The nurses often call each other or meet up to check in and ask for advice on different medical issues, said Nesselrodt.

Another key aspect of being a school nurse is educating students about their health.

As a high school nurse, Nesselrodt says she prepares her students with chronic illnesses to take care of themselves when they are on their own in college.

“It's about making sure they are ready for the next step in their lives,” she said.

At the middle school level, Thomson often finds herself educating students budding into puberty about things like hygiene.

“A lot of nursing is educating. We're always teaching,” said Thomson. “I just told a child who was scratching at his bug bites that his skin is the largest organ. I said, 'It's protecting your body, don't pick it away' and he stopped.”

Being a school nurse can be labor-intensive, time-consuming and stressful at times, said Thomson. But fulfilling a passion for caring for students as if they are your own children makes it all worth it, she added.

“Trust your nurse. If you have concerns, call her,” said Thomson. “Loudoun County nurses within their means will do their best to make education the easiest it can be for kids. They will do their best for them to be happier, for them to be healthier and to fall in love with education.”

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