GREAT HEALTH DIVIDE: COVID-19 pandemic, school-based health clinics needed now more than ever

It’s another unusual school year for students, faculty and staff continuing to deal with the pandemic.
Published: Sep. 7, 2021 at 3:29 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 7, 2021 at 6:24 PM CDT
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ALEXANDRIA, La. (KALB) - It’s another unusual school year for students, faculty and staff continuing to deal with the pandemic, but local school nurse practitioners are playing an important role in keeping kids in the classroom.

We’re in the fourth surge of the pandemic, students are back in school, and school nurses are busier than ever.

“We’re following guidelines, we’re teaching the importance of wearing masks in the classroom and social distancing, you know not touching your face,” said Heather Ducote, School Nurse Practitioner with Trinity Community Health Centers.

These medical professionals act as the first line of defense when it comes to keeping students and teachers safe.

“The parents send their kids to school for us to evaluate them so they don’t have to take off to go to the doctor’s office,” said Carol Hirchak, School Nurse Practitioner for Cabrini.

School nurse practitioners can do everything from treat a common cold to test for COVID-19.

“We can actually see them as providers, diagnose them and treat them within the school, as well as kids that have been exposed to COVID, they can come right to us,” said Ducote.

Cabrini’s 23 school-based health clinics provide help, keeping students in the classroom and parents at work.

“Some of our parents don’t have transportation, some of them may be single parents, some of them may use the bus system to get to their normal place to go buy groceries,” Hirchak said. “Since the students are here every day of the week during the school year, it helps give a continuity of care that they need, and it provides a place that they can come to when they are sick.”

These school-based health clinics can even help lower the cost of some medications for students who don’t have insurance.

“We can help subsidize it through the hospital, we have a clinic, a pharmacy we send them to to get their prescriptions at a lower cost,” said Hirchak.

Over the years working with students, Hirchak has caught health issues that parents may not know about, including helping diagnose two diabetic students in her care.

“Through our wellness exams they don’t know that when students start going through second grade and they’re going through growth spurts that maybe they need a vision check,” said Hirchak. “Nobody has ever told them that, so we pick up kids that need glasses for the first time.”

Hirchak adds building rapport with her students is just as important as treating them and watching them grow over the years.

“I’ve seen students from the time they’re four years old to the time they’re twelve years old, so I know what’s going on at home with them, when there’s a change in their family life, when there’s a change in their physical health, and I can pick up on that faster,” said Hirchak.

Trinity Community Health Centers, which is in 23 Rapides Parish schools, is able to test students and teachers for COVID-19 as often as they’d like.

Both Cabrini and Trinity plan on giving the COVID-19 vaccine sometime this month.

With all school-based health clinics, the services are completely free. Insurance is billed, but there is never any co-pay for the students.

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