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Duluth school nurses extend care beyond student

Duluth News-Tribune - 4/1/2024

Apr. 1—DULUTH — Lori Saari's days can be unpredictable. Whether it's treating kids with a stomach bug, sniffles, asthma or seizure disorders, one thing's for sure: "We are more than handing out Band-Aids and ice packs," said the long-time licensed school nurse.

"We're a small part of the educational process that helps keep kids in school, that's the most important thing."

More than 40% of students in the U.S. have at least one chronic health condition, like food allergies or diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and licensed school nurses or other school health staff may be the first to identify them.

While no federal law requires schools to staff nurses, the Centers for Disease Control recommends one full-time nurse for every 750 students enrolled. In Minnesota,

school health law

requires one full-time LSN for districts with 1,000 students or more.

The Duluth school district employs 10 LSNs, each working across two to three locations.

Saari splits time between Ordean East Middle School and Lester Park Elementary, managing a school's health office — which can see 60 visits a day — with a licensed practical nurse.

With a four-year degree and a Minnesota Department of Health certification, LSNs specialize in protecting and promoting student health to advance academic success for all.

They're liaisons between kids, schools, parents and doctors, and they take into account all wellness factors such as a child's background, physical, mental health, issues at school and at home, said Saari.

LSNs create health directives for kiddos with food allergies, and they write accommodation plans for kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. They perform hearing and vision screenings and administer scheduled medications.

They manage crisis intervention in playground falls, bone breaks and mental health conditions and they work closely with school social workers and the school special education team.

In Duluth Public Schools, LSNs develop policy and procedure documentation like medication storage under the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Minnesota Department of Health and the American Association of Pediatrics.

They also offer simple care.

If a student's hungry, they can't learn, said Saari. Helping with their basic needs is part of helping their health, so they can succeed in school.

Over the past 20 years, Saari has noticed an increase in physical needs and diagnoses to know and monitor, she said.

There's also an uptick in working with children experiencing depression and anxiety since COVID-19.

Along with a heavy educational component, LSNs specialize in building relationships, Saari said. We all want to be heard, and it's vital for students to have a school nurse who can support their whole health.

The same goes for parents.

Dylan Cole was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in the third grade. That meant blood sugar monitoring — sometimes three to four times a day — and an insulin shot or a snack to maintain healthy levels, as well as ensuring he had the proper supplies for the bus ride home.

What might've been daunting for an 8-year-old and his family wasn't because of school nurses like Saari, said Gina Cole.

"I remember sitting in her office and crying because I didn't know what to do and how to keep him alive," Cole recalled after her son's diagnosis. "Lori put her arm around me and said, 'I'm going to keep him alive today, I'll call you later.'"

Saari has worked closely with the Coles ever since. She connected Dylan, now 17, with other students with diabetes. She helped him prepare for high school by building his independence and confidence in his ability to monitor his condition on his own, with LSN support at the ready.

Cold said her "constant worry was lessened" knowing there was another adult with an understanding of his needs.

"I could go about my day, go to work, knowing that he's safe," she said.


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