Competition launches effort to expand school healthcare in Miami Beach

Adina Gould can’t help but worry when she sends her daughter to kindergarten class at North Beach Elementary.

Five-year-old Sydney suffers from a peanut allergy that caused her face to swell so badly when she was a toddler that her mother thought her throat would close and her heart would stop. But due to funding woes, her Miami Beach school has no nurse on staff to treat illnesses or even scrapes and bruises — much less anaphylaxis shock.

“I just assumed the school had a nurse or someone to administer an Epipen,” Gould said, referring to the adrenaline injector that treats anaphylaxis. “Kids will always come in touch with peanut products. I was blown away.”

Though experts say the rate of disorders, allergies, diabetes and other special needs is on the rise among students, increasing the importance of school healthcare and breadth of services needed, the days when an on-campus school nurse was a given are over.

In Miami-Dade County, only 157 of the county’s roughly 335 public schools — excluding charters and private schools — has a daily on-campus healthcare professional to provide services from eye screenings and first aid to immunizations and suicide counseling. The remaining schools share nurses, sometimes one to as many as five locations. Some have no nurse or on-site healthcare services at all.

The latter is the case with North Beach Elementary and two other grade schools of the eight in Miami Beach’s feeder pattern. And that isn’t acceptable in the eyes of some neighborhood leaders, who have banded together to seek out additional dollars from the surrounding community.

“We should all be pulling together to help our kids,” said Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce president and City Commissioner Jerry Libbin.

The first step in the fledgling effort, led by the chamber and a city education committee: competing for a $30,000 grant from Aetna, which is hosting its second annual Voices of Health competition. (The Miami-based Aqua Foundation for Women is also competing.)

The chamber has taken the mantle, and as of late Thursday was in first place in the vote-based competition with more than 87,000 votes cast in favor of its proposal to spend the money on school healthcare. The last day to vote is Oct. 12.

On one hand, the potential $30,000 is just a drop in the bucket: Miami-Dade school healthcare is a vastly complex and expensive system that is valued at more than $20 million a year. A minimum-service health team is estimated at $62,500 a year.

But Miami Beach leaders hope winning the Aetna competition will kick start a push to find community investors willing to pay for services the government can’t afford.

“We’re looking at a whole list of things because a $30,000 grant here doesn’t solve any problems next year,” said Libbin. “We want more than just a Band-Aid.”

Officials and medical professionals with the Miami-Dade County Health Department and The Children’s Trust, which partner with Miami-Dade Schools to fund and administer public school healthcare, laud the uncommon community push.

According to Dr. Peter Gorski, a pediatrician and chief health and childcare officer for The Children’s Trust, there are 340,000 students in 335 schools served by the system, 800 of whom “have complex medical issues.” Some school health teams act as a primary care physician for students, he said.

The Health Department invests close to $3 million annually in state funds toward school healthcare — called Health Connect in Our Schools — and The Children’s Trust spends about $14 million from coffers stocked by Miami-Dade property taxes. In addition, healthcare contractors provide several additional million in in-kind services.

But Lillian Rivera, head of the county’s Health Department, said the agencies don’t have the resources to “cover all the needs.”

“I’d have a health suite in each one of the schools. That would be the ideal situation,” she said. “If not I’d have a nurse in every school.”

All schools with Children’s Trust health suites have a full-time healthcare professional on site, Gorski said.

But many of those schools share health team services, and staffing and services vary based on need.

The more than 150 schools with medical staff funded by the Health Department share healthcare professionals, sometimes five schools to one nurse. Some schools are “satellite” schools that share a nurse and often have staff trained to handle the special needs of their students. That staff is able to contact the nurse for consultation in the case of an illness or incident.

In cases of emergency schools call 911.

Gorski said school healthcare services are invaluable because healthier children are better able to learn in the classroom.

“As soon as we had health suites, over 80 percent of the children treated have gone back to the classroom and not missed educational input,” he said. “It makes a tremendous impact.”

Karen Rivo, a Miami Beach activist and registered nurse who sits on the county’s schools health advisory committee, hopes other communities will take notice.

“If we can do this we can be a model for how other communities can solve this gap in healthcare in the schools,” she said.

Pamela Toomer, director of the Health Department’s School Health Program, said nurses are currently being trained and the Miami Beach schools lacking healthcare services will very soon be satellite schools.

But Gould is hoping for something better for her daughter.

“We need a trained professional” at the school, she said. “And if we get one in place, it will be a way or a door to help grow a bigger program.”