Panel recommends every Austin school campus have a registered nurse

Dec 17, 2017
Nurse educator Cassie Moffitt, inside the nurse’s office at Crockett High School, demonstrates how a virtual clinic works. The technology allows medical staff and parents to video conference with a sick or injured student. The Austin school district brought virtual health care to its schools this year. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

The Austin school district should place a licensed medical professional on every campus, according to new recommendations by a subcommittee tasked with examining school health services.

The group, composed of health care experts, district staff and parents, pointed to various local and other urban Texas school districts that offer school nurses at each of their schools, and said Austin should fund its school health program on par with comparable districts.

“Austin ISD should not be the outlier,” the recommendations stated.

But putting nurses on every district campus would cost the district millions more than it already spends on health services, making it unclear whether or how the district could pay for such a request.

The district has an $8.9 million health services budget, including $7.1 million to the Seton Healthcare Family for student health services, which also includes mental health services. By comparison, the 86,000-student Fort Worth school district, which is close in size to the Austin district, has an $11.6 million health services budget, which includes funding a full-time registered nurse at every campus, plus 21 health assistants spread through the district.

Austin district administrators in January will update the school board on the recommendations.

The district, under financial strain, eliminated nurses at every school more than 20 years ago. It has since contracted with Seton to provide some schools with nurses and others with health assistants, who must have served for six months in a medical clinic, doctor’s office or similar setting but don’t necessarily have formal medical training. A nurse oversees health assistants at several campuses.

The district continues to grapple with its finances, as a larger percentage of its operations budget goes to the state to help fund education in other districts under school finance laws. This year, the amount is estimated to hit $534 million. The district this year again dipped into its fund balance, a type of savings, to give employees raises, and it has a $40 million deficit.

“We’re going to continue to work on this because we want all of our students cared for,” said Trustee Julie Cowan, who frequently attends student health advisory meetings. “The administration will need to continue to weigh all the options and decide what’s best for our students. I have confidence that our children will be well taken care of, keeping in mind this tough budget challenge we’re facing.”

This year, the district again reduced the number of nurses throughout the district and launched virtual health care throughout its schools. The health assistants can consult with the overseeing nurse via a secure webcam.

While district officials touted the virtual health care as more efficient than the previous method of explaining injuries or ailments to the overseeing nurse by phone, the change triggered a backlash among parents and community members, most of whom had not realized that health assistants were not nurses and that nurses were not on every campus. The change meant the nurses had to oversee more schools and more health assistants assigned to the campuses. Many nurses said it was a greater liability to them and said it jeopardized students’ health care at school.

Parents came out in force, showing up at school board meetings and petitioning both district and Seton officials to bring more nurses to the district. Seton in September agreed to increase the number of nurses, promising 73 in addition to the 58 health assistants. Seton absorbed the $1.8 million cost, but officials said the change was for this year only, and the coverage still did not provide a nurse at every campus.

Parent Kelly Tarun, whose son has asthma and a life-threatening allergy, began fighting cuts to nurses once the changes were made known in August, and she now co-chairs the health services subcommittee. Tarun said she’s grateful the district has heard parents’ concerns and gave them the opportunity to provide recommendations.

“I hope that the board and the superintendent and administration really consider the recommendations to bring our district up to the level of the surrounding area districts and districts statewide,” Tarun said.

Since a registered nurse returned to her son’s school, the nurse has called parents and helped students with complex medical needs to learn to self-care, among other things. Tarun said it gives her peace of mind to have a trained medical professional on site in case her son needs it. But, even with Seton’s additional nurses, not all schools will have one, this year or in the future, which is a constant worry to some parents whose children have life-threatening conditions.

“Every single campus needs a licensed medical professional bell-to-bell,” Tarun said. “Those kids on those campuses not only need a nurse, they deserve a nurse.”