Miss. trying to put more nurses in public schools

Published 4:19 pm Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Mississippi is far from the nationally recommended student-nurse ratio, but education officials are making strides to put more nurses in public schools.

Mississippi has 419 nurses in the state’s 182 school districts. The national recommendation is one school nurse for every 750 students, but Mississippi’s ratio is one nurse for every 1,800 students, said Estelle Watts, school nurse consultant for the state Department of Education.

Watts said having school nurses helps keep students in class and could have a positive impact on dropout rates because it improves attendance. She said 84 percent of the students who visit the nurse return to class.

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“They get back to class where the learning takes place,” Watts said.

The Lee County School District is among those that have just about the number of nurses recommended for their size. However, 13 districts in Mississippi don’t even have one school nurse.

Lea Ann McElroy, Bureau of Health Services director at the state Department of Education, said the state is trying to address those shortages. The 2008 Legislature designated $3.7 million to fund school nurses, so the department issued competitive grants that gave funding priority to districts without nurses.

The grants start out at $50,000, and funding is gradually reduced over five years until districts are completely responsible for paying for the nurses themselves.

Assuming the Legislature continues appropriating the same amount for school nurses, McElroy said the state will reach the 1-to-750 ratio in 10 years.

House Education Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, believes the nursing shortage will be addressed in the 2009 legislative session.

“There is a lot of interest in additional school nurses. People are beginning to understand what school nurses do,” Brown said. “We’re going to try to sit down next session in January and look at the overall strategy.”

The state doesn’t have a comprehensive funding structure set up for nurses and, until now, also lacked an overall policy goal.

Funding comes from a mixture of state, local, federal and private sources, and it’s up to each district to figure out how the funding will be handled.

Debbie Pickens, who oversees the nurses in the Lee County School District, said even though her district has one nurse for every 743 students, it would like more because some of their nurses are part-time. Nine nurses cover 12 schools, so some nurses split time between schools. The district funds five of them and the North Mississippi Medical Center funds the other four.

“You have kids get sick everyday, not every other day,” Pickens said. “I do know that all instruction is enhanced when you have healthy kids.”