A Norwood Park elementary school for students with special needs doesn’t have a full-time nurse on staff, raising concerns about the district’s ability to adequately tend to the health needs of its students, an alderman told the Chicago Board of Education at its monthly meeting Wednesday.
Ald. John Arena, 45th, brought the issue before the board two days before a deadline for outside companies to submit proposals to Chicago Public Schools to provide school nurses and health management services.
Arena said the lack of a full-time nurse at Beard Elementary School has at times forced teachers and staff members to administer medications to students, something many instructors feel unqualified to do.
“They not only have concerns about the health of the child, if they were to miss a dose or mistime the doses, because the demands on them are more each day,” Arena said after the board meeting. “And they’re concerned about liability.”
District CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said she was working on the issue with administrators at Beard, and that other schools have similar concerns. “I do want you to know that we’re on to it,” Byrd-Bennett told Arena.
Beard’s principal did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.
School nurses are expected to do more than patch up schoolyard bumps and bruises. Many also help develop and implement specialized health plans for students dealing with a broad spectrum of health conditions.
Wednesday’s exchange came as CPS administrators seek a new contract with outside firms to handle a portion of school nursing in an effort to save money while also meeting the health needs of tens of thousands of students.
CPS officials said the district is seeking contractors to provide temporary and short-term nurses as well as to help with nurse training, recruiting and scheduling. CPS currently uses three agencies to help with nursing services at a cost of $7.5 million per school year.
The district estimates it will spend more than $33 million on school nursing and health management services in the 2015 fiscal year, according to a request for proposals on school nurses and health management put out this past fall and due back later this week.
The district’s proposal request states that nearly 14,000 students required direct nursing services each week as part of their health plans during the last fiscal year.
CPS has told potential bidders its goal is to provide effective nursing and health management services for students “at the most optimal expense.”
CPS said in the bid request that it employs about 280 nurses, slightly more than half of whom are registered nurses with educator licenses who have some protections under the Chicago Teachers Union’s labor contract.
The district said those RNs — known as certified school nurses — are the only ones cleared to assess the special education needs of students and are required to attend regular school meetings with special education personnel. About 170 other nurses who work at district schools are provided by private contractors.
The 450 nurses serve the district’s 683 schools. While each school is assigned a nurse, many of them rotate among several schools, the district said.
Beard serves about 150 students from pre-kindergarten through third grade, according to district enrollment figures. The district says 60 percent of the school’s students are on the autism spectrum, and roughly 83 percent qualify as “diverse learner” students with illnesses or disabilities.
The school’s specialized course work includes group therapy services and a team of clinicians, the district says.
Arena called for the district to fund a full-time nurse at Beard and other schools with similar needs. The district, he said in an interview, doesn’t have the resources necessary to provide sufficient care to students in special-needs schools.
“But I’ve also heard this complaint from parents at traditional schools, neighborhood schools, that the ‘wraparound’ services have consistently been watered down or pulled away from schools,” said Arena, who has aligned with the Chicago Teachers Union on issues including an elected school board and criticism of privately run charter schools.
“They’re constantly looking for things they can cut, but it’s a balancing act,” Arena said of the school district. “I’m saying this should be a priority.”