After parent uproar, more RNs are being added to Austin ISD schools

AISD school nurse testing out the new virtual care tool (Courtesy: Seton Healthcare Family)
AISD school nurse testing out the new virtual care tool (Courtesy: Seton Healthcare Family)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Seton Healthcare Family says it will foot the $1.8 million cost to make sure Austin Independent School District campuses have more registered nurses this year.

When students returned to school last month, many parents contacted KXAN worried that the district were removing registered nurses from all their elementary school campuses.

At the time, Seton, who contracts nurses for the district, said there would still be some presence of RN’s on elementary school campuses, but that the hospital group was introducing virtual technology to allow student health assistants (SHA’s) on each campus to reach an RN via video conference.

In a press release issued Wednesday, Seton and AISD said they’re now adding 33 more registered nurses across elementary, middle and high schools compared to the previous staffing structure. A Seton spokesperson says AISD had 55 full-time RNs last school year. The plan for this year was to have 41 full-time RNs, but now the total will be 74 once they hire the new nurses.

Kristi Henderson, vice president for Virtual Care and Innovation at Seton, explained that those 33 nursing positions have already been posted, Seton interviewed one candidate Wednesday and is encouraging others to apply. Henderson said that AISD and Seton came to this decision on Monday after what she describe as an “enormous amount” of parent feedback.

“So we’ve made a very purposeful decision, to put more nurses at elementary schools and middle schools so we can support the needs of the children,” Henderson said.

The “school health delivery” model will have a full-time RN at AISD’s larger elementary and middle schools; high schools will continue to have a full-time RN on staff. However, medium-sized elementary and middle schools with share responsibilities between one RN and one health assistant. Smaller schools will have full-time health assistants plus a shared RN.

Katie Santos, whose son has a severe peanut allergy, wants a qualified RN available at the Hill Elementary School campus to assess her son and get him an EpiPen immediately if he has an allergic reaction.

“Our first year at [at Hill] we had a full time nurse, and then she told me we’re going to split time between [Hill] and another elementary school, and then last year it was a little bit less time, and this year she was not there,” Santos said.

If her son goes in for health services, he is seen by a SHA, not a nurse. Santos is concerned that these SHA’s don’t have enough training.

“Especially in the elementary area where kids are not old enough to advocate for themselves, they really need a nurse,” she said.

Santos teamed up with other parents, speaking out online and at district meetings.

After hearing parents’ concerns about the possible lapse in care at the beginning of the school year, Seton and AISD are going to build upon a district parental advisory group, asking the group to provide feedback to the school board and superintendent about long-term student health services plans.

The Student Health Advisory Group already meets every month, the subcommittee will be tasked with trying to determine a long-term solution this school year. The committee will add more parents as well as representatives from Seton and external experts.

“We’ve heard parents’ concerns and we value their input,” said Kristi Henderson, DNP, CFNP, who leads the AISD student health services program at Seton, along with Medical Director Mark Shen, MD. “We also know that RNs are a trusted source for parents. We aim to bring in more of these trusted experts into schools so they, along with parents, will help develop a long-term, sustainable plan to help care for Austin’s children.”

“We really appreciate them listening to us and understanding that this is a non-negotiable,” Santos said. She thinks the district responded as quickly as it could have into the school year.

Her 11-year-old son Byrne chimed in, noting that he can’t use an EpiPen on himself with 100 percent confidence.

“So I need an RN nurse to know how to EpiPen me,” he said.

“I think it was a good first step to undo some of what they were doing over the summer where they were removing nurses from schools, but for our situation, I’m not exactly sure how big of an impact it’s going to have,” said Ted Hennessy who has been going to Becker Elementary school every day to help his 4-year-old daughter Esme with her insulin shots since she started Pre-K there a month ago.

Hennessy said that there hasn’t been consistency in the health services at school, more often than not Esme sees a SHA. In the past week, he said there has been one consistent SHA working full-time, but he still has to get her up to speed on his daughter’s medical needs.

“I’m not really sure when I’ll be able to leave just yet because there’s still not that confidence in [Esme’s] care,” Hennessy said.

He worries that because Becker is a smaller school, they will not be given one of the new RNs Seton is hiring. Hennessy thinks adding parent input to the advisory committee will help, but he has some reservations about the whole system.

“But again, that’s shifting some of the burden to their parents, like they’re doing already with the health care situation,” he said. “The burden has shifted to me to take care of my daughter when she’s at school instead of AISD and Seton sort of handling that as they’re supposed to under the law.”

Hennessy worries about how long it will take to hire these 33 new nurses. Like Santos, he wants to see an RN at every AISD campus.

AISD budgeted $7.1 million for Seton’s contract this school year. The hospital group says the additional $1.8 million contribution of in-kind health services adds to the $1.7 million of in-kind services Seton is already providing. In March, KXAN reported AISD had originally budged $5.1 million for the Seton contract but they learned it was going to cost $7.2 million.

For more information on the School Health Advisory Council (SHAC) or to complete an application to be considered for participation on the sub-committee, visit the AISD website here.

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