Toward the beginning of Sherrie Schmidt's career as a school nurse, she recommended a parent take her daughter to an optometrist after the kindergartner failed a vision screening. The parent returned a couple weeks later, nearly in tears, and hugged Schmidt.
She said her child's vision definitely needed to be corrected.
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"When they left the office, her child said, 'Mommy there really are a lot of leaves on trees,'" Schmidt remembered. "It was just nice that our screenings were able to catch something that significant."
Schmidt is the nursing supervisor in Community Unit District 300. She spent her first 12 years working in schools -- at Golfview Elementary, Algonquin Middle School and Jacobs High School -- before shifting into her managerial role.
Alicia Hemstock, a nurse at Garfield Elementary School in Elgin Area School District U-46, has a similar story. She noticed some deficiencies after a hearing test on an elementary school student and passed along her concerns to the parent. The first couple weeks the child had hearing aids, they weren't being inserted properly and her hearing didn't substantially improve.
Then, after she was shown how to wear the hearing aid at school, Hemstock whispered in her ear. The little girl responded with a nod.
"She could hear me," Hemstock said. "I cried as soon as she was out of the office."
School nurses have become more visible in schools as an increasing number of students enter school with allergies or visit them daily for medication to treat chronic conditions. Schmidt said there are more students with asthma and diabetes than she noticed at the beginning of her career.
Besides treating these students and turning away the ones just trying to get out of a math midterm, school nurses spend time cycling students in certain grades through required screenings. An important part of their job is to identify any health-related barriers students might have to learning and address them. One frustration with this, however, comes when parents hesitate. Sometimes it is hard to accept a deficiency or abnormality in one's child but the faster the issue can be addressed, Hemstock said, the better for the student.
Nurses also spend a lot of time keeping records. They are responsible for making sure all students are up-to-date on their immunizations. As these records have moved from filing cabinets to computer hard drives, parents may have noticed more students being kept from school because of skipped vaccines.
Hemstock recommends making all the doctor visits over the summer. For immunizations, yes, but also required physicals, dental exams and vision exams. As of the 2013-14 school year, all students entering grades six through 12 must get at least one dose of the Tdap vaccine. That should hopefully stem the spread of whooping cough that caused significant absences in schools across the state a couple years ago.
What both Hemstock and Schmidt point to as the most enjoyable part of their jobs is education. They teach students about germ safety, how to manage diseases like diabetes and about the dangers of taking medications on their own.
Schmidt said it's this education piece that brought her into the profession.
"I was torn between going into education and nursing," Schmidt said. "In the school setting I get to do both. I get the opportunity to promote health and wellness and I also get the opportunity to provide direct nursing services."
Hemstock knew she wanted to be a nurse from the time she met an RN at a career day as a student at Eastview Middle School. The Bartlett native started out doing endocrinology and urgent care and then switched into school nursing in U-46 after enjoying an initial subbing experience. She likes building relationships with students and their families and seeing younger siblings come up through the schools.
"We're not their parents," Hemstock said, "but for six hours a day, we have the pleasure of having 458 children. It's the biggest joy in the world to see kids learn and grow over the years. I think that we have a lot of joy in our job and I want the parents to know that it's a privilege to work with their kids."
Not sure what health requirements your child needs to meet before returning to school? Visit www.idph.state.il.us/back_to_school.
Tips from a nurse
Good health strategies start at home with parents. Here are five key tips from suburban school nurses.
1. Establish a bedtime routine. Growing kids need at least eight hours of sleep each night to be ready to learn in the morning.
2. Remind students about good hand-washing.
3. Teach kids to cover their coughs and sneezes with their arms.
4. Meet with the school nurse to discuss any medication needs of children.
5. Keep your kids home if they are sick to prevent the spread of disease.