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Chicago Teachers Want a Nurse in Every School

Schools need nurses. A key demand by the Chicago Teachers Union in their strike that kicks off tomorrow, rejected so far by Mayor Lori Lightfoot: putting more nurses in the city’s schools.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union gathered at a rally ahead of an upcoming potential educators strike on September 24, 2019 in Chicago. Scott Heins / Getty

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has made putting a nurse in every school, every day, a pillar of their contract fight. With a strike deadline tomorrow, October 17, Chicago Public School’s (CPS) negotiating team has yet to propose, in writing, the number of nurses they will agree to staff schools with. This despite the fact that newly elected Mayor Lori Lightfoot had made written campaign promises about this. While a candidate, point five on the first page of her Plan to Transform CPS stated, “Schools are staffed with full time nurses, social workers and librarians.”

It was not until after 94 percent of CTU participants voted yes to a strike that CPS even responded in a comprehensive manner to the proposals made back in January. Missing from CPS’s proposal was any concrete numbers. At an October 7 press conference, the president of Lightfoot’s handpicked and unelected Chicago Board of Education, Miguel del Valle, explained their lack of written commitment: “we will staff more nurses, more case managers and social workers … but we need flexibility.”

To a nurse, the world “flexibility” is a slap in the face, because we know that’s the same reason given when we are forced to care for a seventh or eighth patient. Nurses often suffer in silence because, as a “caring professional,” there is no alternative but to get the work done as best we can. This same thing has been happening in Chicago schools for years. But with this contract, the CTU has drawn a line in the sand.

Many school nurses have four or five schools, which means many students only have access to a licensed health professional one day a week. Every other day when a nurse is not there, it is up to a clerk, teacher, or aide to be the nurse. These non-nurses are expected to provide first aid, dispense medication, and assess health.

The needs that exist far outstrip the resources that have been provided by the city. In some cases, these resources have been severely cut, as when former mayor Rahm Emanuel closed half of the city’s mental health clinics in 2012. The waitlist for children to get therapy or see a psychiatrist can take months to years. A study by the Collaborative for Community Wellness found that “there are currently 63 mental health clinicians on the entire Southwest Side of Chicago, which works out to 0.17 therapists per 1,000 residents. On the Gold Coast, an affluent Near North Side neighborhood, there are 381 mental health care providers, or 4.45 per 1,000 residents.”

The same neighborhoods — working-class black and brown communities — that experience the most trauma, and therefore need the most help, have the least access to it. One can only imagine how a student might approach a nurse, who is herself struggling to get as much as they can done in their five schools and might be likely to miss the signs and symptoms of depression, therefore not flagging that student as needing further help. It doesn’t take a statistician to understand that the less nurses one has on hand, the greater the chance for tragedies to happen.

For some students, a school nurse is the only access to health care they have. Due to Trump’s ongoing attacks on immigrant communities, many parents in CPS have been hesitant to sign their children up for publicly funded health care. Out of fear of being flagged for deportation, undocumented families are understandably choosing to go without insurance for their children. These students are doubly punished for being poor and undocumented.

The only way a school currently gets a nurse every day is if one of their students gets diagnosed with a chronic disease. It is an upside-down world where a school has to hope that at least one student gets diagnosed with diabetes, so that all the other students can benefit from the nurse’s presence.

Rather than hiring more nurses full time, CPS has become addicted to a temp-worker model to provide 180–220 of the nurses it uses on a daily basis. In December 2018, the board voted to spend another $26 million on such companies through 2021. The “flexibility” that having temporary contract workers brings CPS does not outweigh its problems. These workers have poor or nonexistent health care benefits, and some have left the job midyear — after building important relationships with their students — seeking better employment. CPS has stated they will phase out these contract nurses, but still won’t commit in writing to how many they would hire.

Without a shred of irony, an October 16 letter to parents stated that CPS “will, however, ensure [that] contract nurses are available to support students as needed.” It is a shame that CPS cannot commit in writing to a nurse in every school every day, but when there is a strike, they force low-wage agency nurses to cross a picket line. This is all the more reason that these nurses, the vast majority of whom are women of color, should be full-time employees and members of our union.

The CTU demanding a nurse in every school every day is a social justice demand, but hardly some impossible socialist pipe dream. This is not something that only exists 4,000 miles away in Sweden, but literally in nearly every school district that borders Chicago.

Suburbs like Lincolnwood and Evanston not only have a nurse in every school, the nurse actually has an office where they can assist the children who need it. In many CPS schools, a sick child will be waiting in the main office for their parents to pick them up while vomiting into a trash bin or openly coughing. They invariably become the “patient zero” whose well-placed germs will cause other students and teachers to become ill over the next week.

Many of these issues described above can be attributed to privatized medicine and its abominable results. If everyone had publicly provided, free health care under Medicare for All, poor students wouldn’t have to rely on a school nurse for treatment. Prior to achieving that, adding more nurses in schools would be a step in the right direction, and CTU should be commended for leading that struggle.

If there were a nurse in every school every day, we could not only provide first aid and administer medication, but be an integral part of health education in the schools. Consider the recent rise of sexually transmitted infections that have led to a 22 percent increase of deaths in newborns from syphilis. The Center for Disease Control reports that one of the causes is cuts in services at state and local levels. More school nurses could play a lifesaving role by educating teenagers about sexual and general health.

The CTU has made school nurses central to their contract fight. There is national precedent for this. As a result of their six-day strike in January, the United Teachers of Los Angeles won a written commitment to hire 300 more nurses. On October 11, CPS proposed spending $400,000 on recruiting, training, and hiring nurses, social workers, and case managers — a tiny fraction of its $7.7 billion annual budget. They will have to commit to much more than that to achieve a settlement.

If the city cries poverty, it will fall on deaf ears. Before Rahm left office, the City Council approved $1.2 billion in public taxpayer money for the Lincoln Yards mega-real-estate development. Why private capital even requires the public’s money is anyone’s guess.

A recent Gallup poll found, for the seventeenth time, that respondents ranked nurses as the most honest and ethical out of twenty job classifications. Nurses care about their patients, and prove it through their daily work. Politicians, unsurprisingly, are at the bottom of that same list. Mayor Lori Lightfoot shouldn’t mess with nurses.