School Nurse Comes in First
BY NORA DOYLE-BURR Valley News Staff Writer
SPRINGFIELD, VT. — Being a school nurse is about much more than giving out bandages.
Such has been the experience of Jenny Anderson, a longtime nurse working at Springfield High School who recently was named Vermont’s school nurse of the year. She’s seen the profession evolve plenty in her 28 years on the job.
Anderson and the four other nurses tasked with caring for the district’s 1,500 students do tend to cuts and bruises, but they also increasingly find they are helping students to manage mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression. Anderson’s work also has included developing school nutrition policies and preparing for emergencies.
“To get out of our office and do extra things is difficult sometimes, (but) that’s really important, connecting with teachers and students who don’t come to the office,” Anderson said in a recent interview at Springfield High.
It is Anderson’s commitment to going above and beyond — such as applying for grants to fund a new position of health coordinator, which would work across the district to improve student wellness — that made her stand out to Springfield Assistant Superintendent David Cohn, who nominated her for the award
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Springfield High School nurse Jenny Anderson, recently named school nurse of the year by the Vermont State School Nurses' Association, hands 11th-grader Owen Thibodeau a few cough drops in her office earlier this month. Thibodeau said he was not feeling well.
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this year, which is given out by the Vermont State School Nurses’ Association.
“She’s relentless in terms of trying to provide whatever supports our kids need,” Cohn said in a phone interview.
Initially, Anderson, a 59-year-old Springfield native and Springfield High graduate, started in the school district floating between four elementary schools in town. She said she was drawn to school nursing by the schedule, which allowed her to be home with her four children on weekends and school vacations, when her husband, Kevin, a now-retired state trooper, might have to work. But, she said, she has stuck with it because she loves working with the students, teaching them how to be healthy and take care of themselves.
“They’re not my children, but I feel like they’re my children when they’re here at school,” Anderson said.
A big part of Anderson’s day can be caring for students’ mental health needs, she said. Sometimes, even when a student comes to her for a physical ailment such as a headache, it’s really something else that’s bothering them.
“We are like social workers somet imes,” Anderson said.
The nurses’ office is located in the same hallway at the high school as the counselors and social worker, so they can work together to help address students’ needs, she said.
“Lots of times they see our office as a safe place,” said Diane Daniels, a fellow school nurse at the high school.
In addition to increasing demand for mental health treatment, Anderson said she has seen poverty-related challenges increase over the years. In Springfield, about 17 percent of the population lives in poverty, compared with about 11 percent of the population of Vermont, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Students’ poverty levels can affect their ability to access nutritious foods, as well as dental and medical care, Anderson said.
Though most students have health insurance, there are lapses sometimes because of job changes or the family may have difficulty getting children to appointments because of scheduling issues, she said.
To try to improve access, the school district began working with Springfield Medical Care Systems this year to provide doctor’s visits and dental cleanings at the schools, Anderson said. As a result, a doctor comes to one of the district’s schools each week. A dental hygienist visits when the school has five or six students in need of cleanings, Anderson said.
“It’s small right at the moment, but I really feel we’ve helped some kids get the services that they need,” Daniels said.
In her role as a school nurse, Anderson has also seen how the opioid epidemic has affected families. While she said addiction is nothing new, the types of substances have changed over time. Whether it’s the students themselves using drugs or their family members, Anderson said, it “seems like there’s more of it.”
Also new in recent years, Anderson and her fellow nurses have worked to put together kits for teachers to use in an emergency situation such as a school shooting. The kits contain crackers, water, portable toilets, flashlights, tourniquets in case of injuries and warming blankets in case the heat goes out or students have to spend an extended period of time outside in the winter.
“New times bring new burdens,” said Daniels, who has worked with Anderson for five years.
To all of this, Anderson brings a calm demeanor, Daniels said, and she understands how things work in the district and in school nursing more broadly. Anderson helped Daniels, who came to school nursing from a job in a hospital rehabilitation unit, to get her education credentials.
Now that Anderson is looking to retire in the not-too-distant future, Daniels said, “I’m feeling pretty inadequate to fill her shoes.”
One of Anderson’s roles has been to help educate teachers in the ways that wellness can affect students’ ability to learn, Cohn said. Anderson, who holds a nursing degree from Alderson Broaddus University in West Virginia and a master’s degree in education from Cambridge (Mass.) College, also has helped teachers by offering trainings in CPR and the use of a defibrillator.
“They have information that teachers often don’t have,” Cohn said of the nurses.
One of the goals of teaching the teachers is to help drive home the connection between academics and health. It’s frustrating, Anderson said, that others in the community sometimes struggle to see that link.
“If kids were more healthy, then they would just be so much better behaviorally (and) do better academically,” she said.
While the high school has health educators, the elementary schools do not, Anderson said. Though many elementary school teachers incorporate elements of health education into their lessons, such as gardening and hygiene, and guidance counselors address subjects related to social and emotional wellness, there is no standardized health education curriculum for the elementary schools, she said.
“I feel like risky behaviors are developed by the time they get to junior high,” she said.
But the schools aren’t working alone, Anderson said.
“Parents are really the best teachers for that kind of stuff,” she said.
That’s why, though it can be difficult, it’s important to get families together to offer resources that she knows are available and could help, Anderson said.
When she can get them together, Anders on’s approach is to begin her relationships with parents by cultivating trust. Then they know they can call her when they have questions on topics such as referrals to counselors, medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and ways to talk to children about sexuality issues, she said.
Now, with nearly three decades of school nursing under her belt, Anderson said, “I feel pretty connected to a lot of the families in this community.”
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.
Springfield High School nurse Jenny Anderson laughs with 12th-grader Tiffany Gordon in her office earlier this month. Anderson was awarded school nurse of the year for 2018 by the Vermont State School Nurses' Association.
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