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School nurses are vital

New York Teacher
Three school nurses in PPE at a NYC school enrichment center
Cynthia Bennett

School nurses worked at Regional Enrichment Centers throughout the city to serve the children of nurses, police officers, firefighters and other first responders on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. David Meara (center) is flanked by Ludovic P. Louis (right) and a colleague (left) who wished to remain anonymous at a REC in Corona, Queens.

This pandemic has put into sharp focus the value of school nurses and the need to have one in every school building.

In the early days of the pandemic, school nurses were on the front lines of the school system’s efforts to keep school communities safe. Provided with personal protective equipment, school nurses were given new protocols to follow for treating and isolating sick students.

But about 137 schools across the city, serving some 71,000 students, did not have a permanent full-time school nurse or school-based health clinic. The city turned to temp agencies to try to hire school nurses to fill the gap.

When school buildings closed on March 17 and most DOE-employed UFT members began working from home, school nurses were assigned to the regional education centers that opened to care for the children of first responders, including health care workers, police officers and firefighters. It was a priority to have nurses on site because a school administrator cannot make medical decisions about children. 

As hospitals were flooded with scores of sick New Yorkers in early April, the city turned to school nurses again to help staff municipal nursing homes experiencing staffing shortages. Exercising his emergency powers, the mayor assigned some 200 UFT-represented school nurses to work at the Henry J. Carter Skilled Nursing Facility in East Harlem.

We’re proud of our school nurses for stepping up. They unquestionably helped save lives.

On March 5, before the pandemic exploded on the city’s doorstep, UFT President Michael Mulgrew testified at a City Council hearing about the city’s preparedness for the coronavirus crisis. He spoke about the need for school nurses in every school building — a need that the union has pointed out numerous times in the past.

Eying the storm that was bearing down on New York City, Mulgrew told the City Council committee, “This is not the time to allow for cracks in our system to put our children and families at risk.”

There will be many hard-earned lessons for New York City from this public health crisis. But this is one lesson the city should have learned long ago.

Related Topics: Coronavirus, Editorials