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Society's Safety Net

School nurses are the first line of defense in the health of our children.

  • Pam Roe
  • Published: April 1, 2009

Edith Finke (left) watches as nursing student LaCosta Scott checks an elementary school student's insulin pump. As the RN for North Shelby School District in Shelbyville, Mo., Finke has two primary goals: being involved in the entire school's health and making sure those students with illnesses obtain an education.

Each morning as the sun breaks over the horizon, Edith Finke kisses her husband Loyd goodbye, leaves their farm and drives her Mercury Mariner into town. As the school nurse at North Shelby School, Finke oversees 400 students, teachers and staff that call the K-12 buildings home during the academic year.

In her 30-plus years of nursing, Finke has seen her role expand from simple administration of medicine to managing complex health issues both on an individual and public health basis.

The '72 graduate's school is in the rural northeast portion of the state; and over the years she's developed her philosophy on school health - keep students healthy so they can keep learning.

"Every day I try to reach two primary goals," Finke says. "As a nurse, I should be involved in the entire school's health as well as the community's. The second is that students with illnesses still need an education."

In fact, the number of students with disabilities attending public schools has increased substantially during the years. Typically school nurses have been the ones that handle the delicate balance of health care and education required by these high-need students.

According to the 2007 U.S. Census Bureau, a quarter of the U.S. population was under age 18. With the majority of those children in school 8-9 hours per day during the work week, how school nurses manage their health care is essential to their education and lives.

"It's not a glamorous job, and since there aren't many school nurses they don't get a lot of attention," says Ardith Harmon, BSN 03, MS(N) 06, former nursing instructor at the School, and Finke's daughter. "Part of the reason for low numbers is when students are in nursing school they aren't paying close attention to their public-health coursework. They are focused on the glitz and glamour of hospital nursing."

The glittering world of hospital nursing does provide new grads with a world they are comfortable in - new technology, following specific pre-determined protocols as well as being surrounded by a support group of peers.

School nurses work at the other end of the spectrum - using minimal technology, thinking on their feet as varied situations call upon their vast knowledge, and making independent decisions.

Although these nurses humbly compare their roles to other health care managers just in the school setting; it's a little more complicated than that.

To read more, follow the subheads in the left sidebar. Or continue reading: Creating a Safety Net.