Schools lack health workers Temporary assistants assigned in interim

no emergencies reported

September 10, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Nearly three weeks into the new academic year, six Howard County schools still do not have permanent health assistants, and at least three -- Forest Ridge and Bollman Bridge elementaries and the Applied Research Laboratory -- have just begun interviewing candidates for the positions, school officials said yesterday.

In the interim, temporary health workers have been brought in, according to Patti Caplan, a school spokeswoman, who said no health emergencies had been reported.

When schools opened Aug. 25, health assistants had not been hired at Bollman Bridge, Forest Ridge, Stephens Forest and Laurel Woods elementaries, Wilde Lake Middle and the Applied Research Laboratory (ARL), a technology magnet school.

Even with the temporary workers, Caplan confirmed that at Wilde Lake Middle School there was no full-time health worker on hand for several days during the first two weeks of school. "This is very much a concern," said Carol Dunlavey, head of the health office for the county Education Department.

"I'm sure there have been missed medications or late medications. That happens at this time of year, regardless, because of new schedules," she said. "But I am concerned about the shortage."

Said Susan Poole, president of the PTA council: "I don't understand what a shortage is in health assistants. What does that mean? They've had all summer to do this. It's a concern for these kids who may need medication."

School officials said an unusually high number of health assistants retired or quit at the end of last year. In addition, a new health model for the school system and the opening of three new schools created a large number of positions.

In all, 13 positions had to be filled, Caplan said -- the highest number in recent memory.

Schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said, "In the past, we may have opened the year with a position or two not quite filled. But I think this is the first time we've had as many as a half-dozen positions that needed to be filled."

Under the new health model, each school is assigned a full-time health assistant and a registered nurse who rotates among three to four schools.

Trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid, health assistants are paid between $9.47 and $15.49 an hour, Caplan said.

"Personally, I wonder if it's the money," Caplan said of the problem of filling the vacant positions, noting that many health assistants have extensive medical training. Some are registered nurses, who often can earn higher salaries elsewhere.

The school board didn't approve the new health model, which created several positions, until late July. So, while school administrators began filling vacancies at the end of the last school year, most openings came up during the summer, school officials said.

Bill Payne, principal at Stephens Forest Elementary, found out that the health assistant who had been at his school more than 18 years would be leaving in mid-August, less than two weeks before the first day of school.

"Once I found out there was going to be a shortage, I got on the telephone and my secretary got on the telephone to get someone lined up," Payne said. "By the time school started, we had everything in place, although some parents were concerned. Some asked questions."

In the meantime, two temporary workers have rotated to fill all the shifts, and the registered nurse assigned to Stephens Forest -- where there are at least 25 students who take medication or have serious health concerns -- has visited every other day, he said.

After weeks of interviewing candidates, Payne hired someone this week who will start Monday, he said.

At Laurel Woods, a new permanent health assistant will start tomorrow.

At Forest Ridge, Principal Marianne S. Pfeiffer was interviewing candidates late yesterday and had decided to offer one of them the position.

Officials at Bollman Bridge Elementary this week received a list of candidates and hope to have a permanent staffer working by the end of the month, according to Principal Pamela Butler.

Administrators at ARL and Wilde Lake Middle could not be reached yesterday.

Temporary health assistants come from a pool of workers -- much like the substitute teacher pool -- that school officials update through the school year. Others come from a Baltimore County-based temporary health agency called Home Health Care, said Robert Lazarewicz, operations director for the Education Department.

The new school health model was proposed in May as an affordable response to concerns that at least seven students who require regular medical care would this year be attending schools where no full-time nurse is on duty.

The plan, which costs about $60,000 a year, came about after an 18-month study that found students with serious health needs have flooded school health offices in recent years.

In the 1994-1995 school year, the study noted, enrollment increased by 5 percent over the previous year, but visits to school health offices rose 18 percent.

"I was not upset at the school system about this," said Payne, of Stephens Forest. "I've been around long enough to know that these things happen. If it's not [a shortage of] teachers, it's something. There's always an adjustment period."

Pub Date: 9/10/97

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