Healthy kids, healthy community: Worthington Regional Health Care Foundation promotes health in schools

WORTHINGTON -- When cold and flu season strikes, don't expect daily attendance figures in District 518 schools to automatically and dramatically decline.With four school nurses now on site daily, and a good percentage of students having received ...

Pharmacist Bryan Hagen administers a flu shot to a customer last week at Worthington’s Sterling Drug. Local pharmacies continue offering flu shots, as do the Sanford and Avera clinics.

WORTHINGTON - When cold and flu season strikes, don’t expect daily attendance figures in District 518 schools to automatically and dramatically decline.
With four school nurses now on site daily, and a good percentage of students having received annual flu vaccinations, the District 518 community is in a strong position to do battle with winter illnesses.
“There have been no major flu outbreaks at Worthington High School (WHS) so far this year,” said Joni Reitmeier.
“Overall, our students have been pretty healthy the last few years, and hopefully we can keep it that way.”
For the past eight years, Reitmeier and fellow registered nurse Wendy Donkersloot have been on the front lines of health care in District 518.
This year, empowered by a $55,000 grant from the Worthington Regional Health Care Foundation Inc. (WRHCF) and matching funds from District 518, Reitmeier and Donkersloot have two additional R.N.s on their team.
Kayla Schmitz is now the full-time school nurse at Worthington Middle School (WMS), while Alyssa Thier splits her time with three days weekly at the Alternative Learning Center (ALC) and two days at WHS.
Donkersloot continues as the full-time school nurse at Prairie Elementary (with over 1,200 kindergarten through fourth-graders on her watch) while Reitmeier, who formerly split her time between WMS and WHS, is located daily at WHS.
“We’re now at about 750 kids per one nurse,” said Jeff Rotert, executive director of the WRHCF, noting that was the district’s target figure.
“Previously District 518 had one nurse for every 1,500 kids, so this is clearly an improvement,” he continued.
“If we can keep kids healthy and in school, that improves the health and wellness of the greater community and can have a big impact on the level of student absenteeism.”
District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard sees it the same way.
“These positions allow us to get to the recommended student-to-nurse ratio, and help us meet the many health needs of our student population,” said Landgaard.
“The increased number of nurses in the schools also enables us to provide elements of health education that were not previously possible due to the workload.”
One key annual project of the District 518 school nurses is coordinating an annual flu clinic for students.
On Oct. 29 and 30, approximately 1,140 District 518 students were vaccinated, up from 1,040 in 2014. Of those, 555 vaccinations were performed at Prairie Elementary.
“We had about 220 sign up for the flu vaccine at WHS, and most of those had it administered,” said Reitmeier.
Since 2009, the WRHCF has annually provided $5,000 ($2,500 each to Sanford and Avera) to support the District 518 flu vaccinations.
“Those dollars help with any over-ride costs, like providing information to parents, taking care of the kids who don’t have insurance and supplies,” said Rotert.
“The grant for the flu shot clinic is the only one we do annually - normally we don’t fund things longer than three consecutive years - but this is the one exception the foundation has made, because influenza is an annual problem.
“Our mission is to promote health and wellness in the Worthington area, so the flu clinics fit very nicely with that goal.”
If flu were the only hurdle District 518 school nurses had to jump, they’d be fortunate, but their jobs encompass many other challenges.
“It’s been a big year for asthma attacks and medication management,” said Donkersloot, “and ADHD is very prevalent.”
All of the school nurses also attend many meetings for students with IEPs (individualized education plans) whose health requirements affect their educational needs.
“There are also diabetics at each school who need daily care,” said Donkersloot, with the elementary level being especially labor-intensive for that task; she sees one diabetic student at least five times daily, for blood sugar checks, insulin administration and carb counting.
“We also have kids on alert for seizures and a few students with heart conditions,” Donkersloot listed.
“Then there is the mental health piece, with some students being troubled by situations that may be occurring at home that are causing them to become either physically or psychologically ill.”
“It’s a big job but a rewarding one,” contributed Reitmeier. “Nursing is about taking care of people, and sometimes you have to go the extra mile to get that done.”
At the high school level, Reitmeier says she aims to help students with health concerns - say, diabetes or an underlying heart condition - become as independent as possible in managing their own health needs.
“We try to help educate them on their health issues and teach them to be advocates for themselves,” said Reitmeier.
“Mom and dad or the school nurse is not always going to be there whispering in your ear what you need to do, so students need to know how to handle that on their own.”
Besides the annual flu clinics, day-to-day medical assistance for certain students, hearing and vision screenings and health education for students and staff, school nurses must be prepared to deal with occasional health emergencies (illness, broken bones) that often but unexpectedly occur.
“Broken bones on playgrounds do happen,” confirmed Donkersloot. “And one of our biggest challenges is trying to find parents to get a sick or injured kid to a doctor.”
Reitmeier confirmed that contacting parents is an issue even at the middle- and high school levels.
“Some kids aren’t sure where their parents work, or if they’re in or out of town on a given day, so sometimes a kid with an elevated temperature might sit in the office for two to three hours before someone comes to get them,” said Reitmeier.
“They may be older, but if they’re still under 18, we need consent and a parent or guardian to sign them out; we don’t just send th em off in their cars and say, ‘See you later,’ for their own well-being.”
So if there was one wish the school nurses could have granted - aside from universal excellent health for all students and staff - it would be to have up-to-date daytime phone numbers for every student’s parent or guardian.
“Please, if you change a daytime or work number, contact your child’s school and let the office know where you can be reached,” pleaded Donkersloot.
Even with the challenges school nurses face, the addition to the local school nurse ranks, made possible by the WRHCF and District 518, offers a big boost to the community’s health.
“School nurses really support the health of our students, and the WRHCF grants go a long way toward taking the burden off of funding for other educational areas,” said Landgaard.
Added Donkersloot, “The additional nurses and annual flu clinics help out our students by giving them improved access to health professionals and health care resources.”
Flu vaccinations for the general public remain available at the local Sanford and Avera clinics, and also at local pharmacies.

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