One in 10 kindergarten and first-grade students are chronically absent from school. This is troublesome because attendance at this age influences how proficiently children learn to read by the third grade. In addition, if a student is chronically absent by the 6th grade, it is a strong indicator that the child will drop out of high school.
One of the key roles of a school nurse is to decrease absenteeism. While there are any number of reasons a student becomes chronically absent, we know that keeping a student healthy is a great start. We teach students to wash their hands, “sneeze in their sleeve” and cover their mouths when they cough. But we must work harder to prevent communicable diseases such as pertussis, measles, mumps and meningitis. Up-to-date immunizations play a vital role in keeping students healthy.
When a child is stricken with a communicable disease such as pertussis, measles or flu, they expose other students, staff and family members to the illness and experience significant lost academic time. There are other costs to consider including parents’ lost time at work caring for the child, and significant medical costs.
In Ohio, students are required to provide written proof by the first day of school of being immunized by rules set forth by the Ohio Department of Health. Kindergartners are required to be vaccinated against illnesses such as pertussis (Tdap); polio; measles, mumps and rubella (MMR); and varicella, better known as chicken pox. Students entering the 7th and 12th grades require vaccinations against deadly meningococcal disease.
There are times when a student or staff member’s special medical needs mean that they are not able to be fully vaccinated. This is where the need to maintain the herd immunity is critical. The term “herd immunity” defines when a high percentage, 90 – 95 percent, of the population is vaccinated against a contagious disease. That means there is little opportunity for an outbreak to occur. This helps protect individuals with immunity issues, such as infants too young to be vaccinated for pertussis, a pregnant teacher, or a child being treated for a cancer. When students are not fully vaccinated, the risk posed is not just to them.
As school nurses, our training and experience allows us to help improve immunization rates. We educate students, families and school staff on vaccine preventable diseases, myths and vaccine safety. I and my fellow school nurses encourage parents to schedule appointments now with your healthcare provider, retail pharmacy or immunization clinic at your local health department to make sure your child’s immunizations are up-to-date. Classes may have just ended, but this is one thing you can do now to help avoid the back-to-school rush.
Debra Stoner is president of the Ohio Association of School Nurses