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Kids increasingly relying on school nurses for health care

A student hobbles into the Red Wing High School nurse's office complaining of a sore ankle.

Red Wing School District Nurse Kris Klassen examines the child and finds the ankle is likely broken. After learning the student has lurched around on the tender joint for days, she recommends an immediate trip to the doctor.

"They say, 'No, I can't get into the doctor,'" she said.

"That's just so unfortunate," Klassen said.

The experience is becoming all too familiar to Klassen and school nurses around the country. Students find themselves leaning on school nurses as their first stop for medical treatment while families struggle with insurance costs.

A study released in September by the think tank Minnesota 2020 substantiates her claims. According to the report, school nurses are the front-line health care provider for many uninsured and underinsured low-income families.

The problem is often compounded by school districts struggling with finances. A survey done by the 2020 group and the School Nurse Organization of Minnesota found more than 80 percent of school nurses say districts don't receive enough money to meet student needs.

More than half, according to the study, said districts are forced to cut nursing positions to save money.

While Klassen said she and Red Wing nurses are getting by, she is working in a system that saw its staff shrink this year.

As part of $500,000 in budget cuts, School Board members opted not to refill a retiring nurse's position at the high school. Klassen - who until this year oversaw all district nurses - stepped in and added high school nurse to her title.

The cut saved the district $31,000, said Supt. Stan Slessor, adding that it was a difficult one to recommend.

"We felt we had to do it as a result of that comprehensive budget reduction," he said. "All those last year were hard decisions."

Despite the loss of a nurse, Red Wing is ahead of the state curve: According to National Association of School Nurses data, Minnesota's nurse-to-student ratio is 1,404-to-1 -- ranking Minnesota 30th in the nation.

Federal goals recommend a school nurse-to-student ratio of 750-to-1. Minnesota only requires districts with more than 1,000 students to have at least one nurse on staff.

Red Wing's ratio is closer, where each building -- apart from Towerview -- has a resident school nurse. Klassen handles the most students, with 917 at the high school. Burnside Elementary has 668 students, followed by Twin Bluff Middle School's 661. Sunnyside Elementary has 496 students.

Still, the strain has effects.

Klassen said she had to cut back this year on vision and hearing checks by half. Instead screening students in grades K through seven, tests have been scaled back to first-, third-, fifth- and seventh-graders.

Sometimes Klassen -- who also serves as nurse to Red Wing's alternative schools, parochial schools and home-schoolers -- can find help for students peering into the abyss.

She said a high school student this year came to her saying he was off his medication and was beginning to feels the effects. But since his parents had to wait for the next paycheck, they couldn't afford to refill the prescription.

Klassen was able to locate a service that funded the boy's medication for a month.

"Financially, they're suffering in many different ways," she said. "It gets real tough."