The Chicago Public Schools don’t seem to get it.
When the school district fails to provide nursing services to students with special medical needs, it’s not only failing to do the right thing. It’s breaking the law.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law, was enacted in 1975 because millions of disabled children in states across the country were being denied admission to public schools. Parents sued on constitutional grounds, and they won.
A child’s right to nursing services at school is as full and valid as a child’s right to teachers and textbooks.
Yet Chicago’s public schools continue to fail to provide adequate nursing services to all students who require them, a chronic problem that appears to have gotten no better in the last three years as CPS has recommitted to contracting out for many of its nurses, rather than hiring more or all nurses directly.
And so we get stories that make us angry, like that of little Liam Miller, a 5-year-old boy who, because of an intestinal condition, needs a feeding tube in his stomach 18 hours a day.
As Lauren FitzPatrick of the Sun-Times reported on Sunday, Liam is able to attend kindergarten at Oriole Park Elementary School on the Far Northwest Side only because he has been promised the necessary — and legally mandated — nursing care. Without it, he would have to stay home.
But because Liam’s nursing care at the school has been poor, Liam’s mother, Krystal, goes to kindergarten with him — and on most days stays.
On Liam’s first day of kindergarten, there was no nurse. On his second and third day, there was no nurse. And since then, Liam has been cared for by seven different nurses in a constant turnover. At least one nurse clearly lacked the training to attend to Liam’s food pump.
On some days, even now, there is no nurse.
So what’s going on?
Part of the problem at the beginning of the school year was that CPS had not completed background checks on all the nurses hired from outside agencies. But parents say the bigger problem is that agency nurses often don’t show up. Or quit. Or don’t know how to work children’s medical equipment.
CPS employs 335 nurses directly, though some budgeted nursing positions remain unfilled. CPS also relies on nurses from private agencies. In 2015, CPS signed a contract with RCM Technologies, a New Jersey company, that agreed to provide about 170 nurses. The contract runs through next June.
The Millers are far from the only family with complaints about CPS’ failure to provide adequate nursing services. The Chicago Reporter wrote four years ago about such concerns, raising the question of whether all CPS nurses should be directly hired, which could give the administration more control over schedules and quality control.
And as recently as last month, FitzPatrick wrote about similar complaints from other parents. A parent of a boy with spinal bifida said she had to take two weeks off work to care for her son at school after his nurse quit and no replacement was assigned.
“The current nursing shortage is a travesty and is part of a pattern of neglect at CPS over many years,” Marca Bristo, president and CEO of Access Living, the Chicago-based disability rights organization, told us on Tuesday. “Students’ health should not be put at risk, nor should parents have to jeopardize their jobs or family income by going to school to provide services that the school is required to provide by federal law.”
Bristo pointed out that the nursing shortage is one reason CPS’ special education program was placed last spring under the monitoring of the Illinois State Board of Education.
The truth is that decades after the concept of “mainstreaming” children with disabilities became the socially approved norm and a legal requirement, we’re still not doing it right.
When we fully understand, as a society, that school nurses are not “extras” — because kids with disabilities are not “extras” — we predict this chronic shortage of nurses will magically disappear.
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October 16, 2018 at 05:11PM