In a new project started by writer and WE member Marta Rose, writers from around the world are teaming up with Philly teachers to show the world how WE keep our contracts with students every day-- at the same time as the SRC is breaking their contract with teachers and schools.
Check out an excerpt below featuring school nurse Eileen Duffey, and go to KeepingTheContract.Org to be inspired by many more stories of teachers keeping their contract with the students and families of Philadelphia.
Eileen Duffey, School Nurse
by Daisy Fried
“People think school nurses slap on bandaids,” says Eileen Duffey, the three-day-a-week nurse for over 900 students at The Academy at Palumbo, a South Philadelphia high school, and two-day-a-week nurse for more than 500 kids at Allen M. Stearne Elementary School in Frankford. In fact, Duffey, who’s been a Certified School Nurse for 20 years, does give out bandaids. And sometimes deodorant and mouthwash, and safety pins and duct tape, if a kid’s clothes tear, items she supplies herself, not with district funds. “Because when you’re a teenager, your day is ruined if somebody says ‘ew, I smell something, is that you?’” My job is to get kids back to class. And I’d rather have a teen come sit in my office for 20 minutes because life sucks, so they can salvage the rest of the day, instead of going truant.”
But that’s only part of the job.
The goal of school health programs according to the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) is to “meet the needs of the whole child and support school achievement.” This gets complicated when, according to NASN, 16% of the nation’s 52 million school kids have chronic physical, emotional or other health problems, and schools have become the only source of health care for many children and adolescents. Asthma, diabetes and autism are among disorders for which diagnoses have risen sharply in children in the last decade.
The maximum nurse to student ratio allowed by law is 1:1500. But NASN recommends a ratio of 1:750—and that’s for kids with non-complex health needs. Duffey watches over more than 1400 kids. Low-income kids have more health problems and less access to medical care outside of school. 97% of Stearne kids and 75% of Academy teens are classified as “economically disadvantaged” by the School District of Philadelphia.
Kids with chronic health problems need emergency as well as routine daily plans. If a child has diabetes, says Duffey, “you have to communicate with a lot more people than you’d think—administrators, classroom and phys ed teachers, a CHOP Endocrine nurse, sometimes the Department of Human Services—while also making sure the child is following any protocols necessary.” When a child of undocumented immigrants (who is legally entitled to public education in the U.S.), who has no health insurance, is diagnosed with a serious hereditary heart problem, Duffey talks to doctors to figure out how the child can get the expensive medicine the child needs. She maneuvers through red tape to plan for the possibility of an ER visit during school hours. And she needs to get other people at the school, from the principal on down, in on the protocols, so that when Duffey’s away on her other assignment, the child gets essential care. “I trust myself as a professional to manage that—as long as I’m there,” says Duffey. “After all, I don’t have to oversee the PSATs and 50 other things that a principal might. I am a medical person—the only medical person. This job cannot be done well on the cheap and it cannot be done well at current staffing levels.”
Prior to draconian budget cuts, she worked with teams of professionals. She used to work full-time at the Academy in collaboration with 3 counselors, with the additional support of specialists placed through district-funded programs. First the specialists were cut, then 2 of the 3 counselors, and now she’s a part-timer at two schools working with a single counselor at each location, not always on the same days—a “fraying of the web of professional protection,” as Duffey calls it.
Now she works, she says, in a system “hellbent on labeling schools ‘failing’ even as resources are pulled out from under them.” Sharing information, and building trust with children, are hard for personnel working part-time at multiple locations. Duffey recalls a child brought to her at the end of the school day who complained of itching—from what she suspected was a serious cause. “A layperson might have hurried the child on. A professional nurse would do a thorough assessment. A Certified School Nurse who is a consistent member of a school community would know the child, have the child’s trust, be the person who could uncover subtle signs of sexual abuse.” It’s a lot harder for her to “be the person” when she only has a couple of days a week at a school. “When you’re dealing with human beings it’s like putting puzzle pieces together in the best of circumstances. Working chronically shortstaffed only makes it harder. It’s heartbreaking, the children who are falling through the cracks.”
School nurses in Philadelphia are in the same union and on the same pay scale as teachers. But there are a lot of policy-makers in government and a lot of people in the corporate world making money off the destruction of public education, who want to pay school nurses less, and don’t see why specially-trained nurses are needed.
“From the corporate perspective, a nurse is a nurse is a nurse. They arrogantly dismiss the specialization of the Certified School Nurse,” says Duffey. CSNs like Duffey are RNs with additional graduate training. Duffey worked 10 years at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia before working for the School District. “And I still needed the additional training and a few years experience before I felt competent in a school setting as the only medical professional. The liability is huge. I’m proud to say I have never been involved in a single lawsuit in 20 years.
“I have said this over and over again through bullhorns in rallies on Philly streets. People do not understand we Philly school nurses are a bargain. Replacing Certified School Nurses with cheaper nursing services will mean less care for our most vulnerable citizens. With the money they’ll spend on the Laporshia Massey lawsuit and more that are sure to follow they could pay for additional nurses,” says Duffey, referring to the 12 year old girl who died after suffering a severe asthma attack at West Philly’s Bryant Elementary School when, due to budget cuts, no school nurse was present.
Duffey has been an activist since the School District first laid off 50 school nurses late in 2011. She attended her first rally a few days after Christmas that year and continued leading weekly demonstrations until Memorial Day, 2012, when her own medical condition—she has multiple sclerosis—worsened. Now she works hours each day on her own time behind the scenes, “countering the onslaught of distorted information the public receives as a result of billionaires who can afford to advance a narrative that suits their privatizing purposes….For example. Did you know that with standardized testing, they don’t determine the cut-off for failing in advance? They want to make sure a certain percentage of kids fail, and set the cut-off after finding out how well the kids do. Then they can close more schools.” She laughs. “I realize I’ve become a bit obsessed…When my husband and I go out with friends, I tell him he has to give me a signal if I’m going on too long. I could go on for hours and hours.
“What I wish people in Philadelphia understood is that this entire city is forfeiting our children’s future by allowing corporate perspective to dictate how we run our schools. We are all culpable. I am culpable. We need to recognize our collective responsibility and fight together. You think it can’t get worse? It can get worse. It’s going to keep getting worse until there is some kind of revolution.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Daisy Fried is the author of three books of poetry. A long time ago she had a brief career as a journalist. She lives in South Philadelphia.