Wanda Miller, director of the National Association of School Nurses, was not surprised by a USA Today examination that showed the national student-to-nurse ratio of 950 to one is well over the recommended federal ratio of 750 to one.
The examination, based on 2004 Census records, blamed the problem on overextended school district budgets, poor enforcement of the federal ratio recommendations and low school nurse salaries.
The issue is complicated by a nationwide nursing shortage in general, and that fact that there are more students in public schools with severe health problems or impairments, such as cerebral palsy, Miller said. The latter is due to legislation in the 1970s that made it easier for disabled children to attend public school.
Exactly how does the shortage impact most students -- those without serious health issues?
This is less clear, Miller said.
For example, the USA Today article indicated that the shortage may be responsible for several reported incidents of children dying because no medical help was readily available, but Miller said it can be hard to know that for sure.
"There is always a risk that a child who died may have died even if there were five doctors and 10 nurses standing around," Miller said. "But I do think that the risks are [lower] if a school nurse is there."
For more day-to-day matters, studies have shown that when "there's a full-time nurse in the building, children with chronic health problems lose fewer days of school, and so their health is managed better," Miller said.
Parents concerned about the shortage should work with their local districts, she said. Presenting them with the mounting evidence that school nurses keep kids healthy may help sway local school officials.
"Ask your school board to assess the health and safety of children, and to look at whether there is an educational benefit in having a school nurse there," she said.