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Iowa City IA 52242
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Nursing students learn about rewards, challenges of being school nurses

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- School nursing in the 90s is more than dispensing medication and calling parents of sick children -- now it can mean anything from mainstreaming disabled kids into the classroom to running health promotion and disease prevention workshops.

Some University of Iowa College of Nursing students are learning firsthand about the challenges that come with nursing in schools. They work hand in hand with school nurses, helping them with major projects and everyday needs -- in short, they become part of a school district's team. It's all part of the coursework for the College of Nursing class "Nursing in Community Health," a requirement for all senior nursing students. All students in the course must complete 80 hours of community nursing work outside the classroom.

Not all the students in the class choose school nursing but it is becoming an increasingly popular choice among them. There are more than a dozen students from the class involved in school nursing this semester, and faculty have a goal of getting about 20 students into school nursing environments. Numbers have been as high as 18, depending on the number of students in the class.

"When we first started, we had only about three students at the undergraduate level doing school nursing," says Ann Marie McCarthy, UI assistant professor of nursing and one of four faculty members who teaches the course. "Since then, the numbers have gone up and we've decided that this is a really ideal experience for students."

One of the districts involved in the program is Mount Vernon. The school nurse for the district is Lois Pavelka, a 15-year veteran of school nursing who is also a graduate student in the College of Nursing. The spring 1997 semester is her third working with students from the class.

"It's been excellent. They've taught me, and I've taught them," Pavelka said of the three nursing students who have worked in the Mount Vernon schools. "They've been a major help in special projects I didn't know were going to happen."

An example of such a project was during Pavelka's first semester of involvement with the nursing students. A child was identified as a carrier of hepatitis-b and an immunization and information campaign had to be started. Pavelka and the student organized the clinics, raised the funds for them, informed parents and the community, and scheduled the immunizations. Immunizations were then administered by the Linn County Health Department. Pavelka estimates that 70 percent of the more than 1,000 students in the district were immunized.

Students took on other projects of their own, Pavelka said. In the past, those have included programs about allergic reactions, dental health, and hand washing. Pavelka says she's been impressed with the students' abilities to work with the community, which is especially important in a town the size of Mount Vernon.

Suzanne Hammer, a December graduate from the College of Nursing, was Pavelka's first nursing student and worked with her during the hepatitis-b crisis. She says she went into the school nursing environment with some apprehension but left it recommending it to younger students for their community nursing experience.

"It opened up a whole new area of nursing for me. I had thought that school nursing was a thing of the past," she says. "I would definitely consider (working in) school nursing in the future."

Now a nurse in diagnostic neurology at the UI Hospitals and Clinics, Hammer says the hepatitis-b immunization clinics were a great learning experience, as were the many programs she put together for students during her time there. It also taught her a great deal about working with children, she says.

Instructors in the Nursing in Community Health class have found other ways to get their school nursing students involved in the communities in which they work. The UI class started a new program in the fall 1996 semester that pairs the nursing students with a pharmacy student also working in the community. The two students work together on special projects, and it is a chance for them to work with a health care professional from another discipline.

Faculty say the new program is another sign of the changing times in health care - more communication between and among health care disciplines in order to promote the health of a population as a whole. As school nurses are faced with more responsibilities, faculty say they expect to see more students interested in school nursing.