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BCPS school nurses make a big impact on students, schools


School Nurse Eileen Ertel

The way Jim Slayton, school nurse at Deer Park Elementary School, sees it, “the nice thing about school nursing is that you can make it as big or as small as you want.” He – and the nurses found in every Baltimore County school – like to make it big.

Eileen Ertel, Pine Grove Elementary’s school nurse, laughs out loud as she says “a lot of people think we just put bandages on.”

School nurses – especially in Baltimore County Public Schools – do so much more.

Making it big

At Woodlawn High School, nurse Teresa Marion manages one of the school system’s 11 School Based Wellness Centers, which provide preventive care such as check-ups and immunizations.  As a first-year school nurse, she has spent a great deal of time developing meaningful relationships with her students. Getting outside of the health suite, she even provides first aid and emergency care, as needed, at some school football games.

School nurse Chris Ratych was instrumental in securing a School Based Wellness Center at Parkville High School to provide episodic care and immunizations to ensure students remain in school. She is also a CPR Instructor for the BCPS Training Center, teaching 20 classes so far this year, and is a strong advocate for the ELL students. 

School nurses tailor their services based on the specific needs of their school communities.

Ertel, who has been nominated for Maryland School Nurse of the Year by her principal, Jean Wilson, does a lot of work related to asthma and health literacy.

“I teach Open Airways, a class for children from Grades 3 to 6 who have asthma,” Ertel says.  “They learn about what asthma is, the medicines they use, when to see a doctor, and emergency signs that they need to look for.”

Only students attend the classes but parents are educated, too, through regular letters that are sent home.

Literacy in health, too

Health literacy, especially related to asthma, and other chronic health conditions, is a priority for Ertel. “Health literacy,” Ertel adds, “is how to take health information and understand it and apply it to your life.”

A lot of what she and other school nurses do, Ertel says, is about health care coordination with students, parents, health care providers, and teachers. Ertel, for example, serves on Franklin Square Hospital’s community asthma committee. “I give them the school nurse perspective, what I see happening with students and families on a daily basis.” Ertel says that she has worked at schools where as many as one in three students are dealing with asthma. 

Slayton believes his inter-agency collaboration is integral to his role as the school nurse. 

“As I register and get to know students and families,” Slayton says, “I try to look at big picture.”

Attached to families

School nurse Jim Slayton

“Our students,” he adds, “aren’t just individuals. They are attached to families.”

Slayton works closely with student parents and guardians to assist them in getting health insurance, for example through the MChip program. “Sometimes, I just get the applications for them. Sometimes I help them fill the applications out.”

Slayton has nothing but praise for the Baltimore County Health Department and its responsiveness. “They are a one-stop shop,” he says. “If they don’t offer a service, they direct families to a provider who can.”

He also works closely with and often directs families to clinics in the Randallstown Community – like the Liberty Family Resource Center and Chase Brexton – that offer free and reduced price services.”  

As Ertel described, Slayton says that families often receive a lot of health care information and need assistance wading through it. “I like to ask if the information makes sense to them or if they have questions. I like to help them find health care providers that will really support them.”

Slayton’s collaborative approach begins in the school building. “I work a lot with the teachers, school counselors, school psychologists,” he says.

Bridging the distance

“As a school nurse, we are in a unique position to bridge the distance between school and families. Because of the work we do with students, we might hear more about the family dynamic or issues facing families. Then I can sit with my colleagues and we can figure out what we can do, what we need to do.”

He continues, “Sometimes parents think of teachers as being attached to their children’s grades, but nurses are not. Nurses are seen only in a helping role. Sometimes we can help act as advocates for parents, facilitate relationships.”

For Slayton, who worked in a hospital setting before becoming a school nurse, one of the great differences is that this is “immediate” work. “When you have done something especially helpful, the parent sends an email, the student thanks you the next day. In a hospital setting, you don’t always get that. In the school, you are it. You feel the personal responsibility. You can walk away at the end of every day knowing that you accomplished something.”

A lot of the work school nurses do, Slayton says, is “invisible.” School nurses, he says, “are involved in a lot more coordination than people realize. For example, over spring break, one student was diagnosed with diabetes. I spent time with the student, with the family, communicating with the student’s physician, making a plan for the student’s in-school care.”

He adds. “There are a lot of things to review with teachers, too. Some students are dealing with pretty significant medical concerns. Teachers aren’t health care providers, but I have to help them understand warning signs to look for. For example, if students have sickle cell disease, they can’t get too hot or cold, and if they say something hurts, it is a big, big deal. I have to make sure that teachers are educated about that.”

Nurses as educators

School nurses also directly educate students in their classrooms on a wide range of topics. Cynthia Johnson, school nurse at Church Lane Elementary School, works with students on every grade level about issues relating to hygiene. For every grade, she makes the lessons fun and age appropriate.

Ertel leads a big handwashing effort at her school. Students love using applying a “glow germ gel,” washing their hands, and using a black light to see if they missed any “germs.”

Every school nurse bring special talents and attributes to the job. For Virmarie Marrero-Rodriguez – known as “Nurse V” at Franklin Middle School, one of her special attributes is her Puerto Rican heritage and ability to provide special assistance to Latino families in the Franklin Middle community.

“We have a lot of parents who don’t speak any English. I can help them communicate with teachers and others in the school. I am still helping some families whose children are now in high school. I feel like if I am here and I can help, why not?”

Nurse V also is known for working closely with students with diabetes and providing them with education and advocacy skills to foster independence and less time out of the classroom. “I work with them every day,” she says, “helping them make the best decisions and being an advocate for them.” 

She thinks that the community would be surprised by the diversity of health issues students face. “The thing that impacts me the most is the huge mental health needs in our community,” she says. “Some young people are struggling every day. There is a huge need that often goes untreated in our society.”

After a traumatic student loss at Hereford High School, school nurse Leslie Perry collaborated with the school social worker and developed a program for students to access help if needed. She strategically posted information in halls and bathrooms including a tear-off number to call.

The goal of all of our work, Ertel says, is to support student wellbeing, growth, and academic success. “We work,” she says, “so that our students will be able to fully participate in their school program. We enjoy watching them grow and develop and become more independent and confident.”

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