An interview with school nurse, Linda Mendonca:
Environmental health is a very important aspect of school health that tends to get overlooked. As a school nurse I may be the only one in the school setting with a health background ensuring students are healthy and ready to learn.
I’ve been a school nurse for 19 years, and I’ve worked in all kinds of schools: elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. I was a Navy wife with four children, and I needed a job with a workable schedule for when my husband was out to sea. That’s how I got involved in school nursing. Currently I work at an urban Jr./Sr. high school in Rhode Island.
Air Quality in Schools
The air inside a school can determine the health and academic performance of the students. There are many factors in the school environment that influence the air quality. For example, is the ventilation system working properly? Is it maintained regularly? Are filters being changed? Another factor is the moisture level. At my school, there are a lot of leaks in the roof. Water comes down into the ceiling tiles, and if you look up, you can actually see the mold in the tiles. Schools need to have a plan to take care of problems like that.
You also have to look at the general cleanliness of the place. Is there a lot of dust? Are there cockroaches? Are there pesticides being applied to control for infestations? All of these things can trigger asthma. Many people are concerned about the chemicals in labs when they think about healthy school air. But I haven’t had many problems with that. I think the overall environment is more important.
Over the years, as I continue to practice school nursing, I have encountered many factors in the school air that have impacted the students and staff. When there are problems with the ventilation system and airflow isn’t good, that affects children and staff members with asthma. Another thing I have been seeing lately in my high school is the use of cologne sprays, such as Axe. Some kids think it’s funny to spray it in the classroom – then I’ll get five kids in my office all at once because they’ve been breathing this spray. It’s now banned at my school, but kids sometimes sneak it in!
Asthma is a big problem in my school. About 20% of my students have asthma, with varying levels of severity. I am very passionate about decreasing asthma triggers by using healthier cleaning products, preventing mold, and educating school staff and teachers.
School Bus Idling
One other factor to consider regarding air quality and the school environment is that of school bus idling. It is important that school buses are not idling outside of school buildings. As they idle the fumes are able to penetrate into the building through open windows (in warmer weather) and through doors that are left open as large groups of students enter the building. When I worked in Illinois, in the morning when the students arrived at school, the front door would be open and fumes would come right into the school. The fumes traveled right down the hall into my office. It was so toxic. It really reduces air quality.
Some states, such as Rhode Island, have a no-idle law for diesel vehicles, particularly school buses. You may want to check the laws in the state where you live. If your state has a law, do the school buses comply? Do the parents and caretakers in the carpool line comply? Whether or not there is a law, you can work toward voluntary limits on idling to improve the air around the school. If the air outside the school is polluted, it is likely that the air inside the school is also unhealthy.
What You Can Do
As a parent you can make a difference! You can explore the school’s environment if you have concerns or children with chronic health issues.
One of the most important things I tell parents is to know your child’s asthma triggers. You need to advocate for your child. Make sure that the school environment is compatible with your child’s health needs. I also tell my parents to make sure their child complies with the maintenance medications that can keep asthma from flaring up. And of course, make sure your child has his or her inhaler. So many times kids come into my office without the inhalers that they need to address their asthma symptoms.
The EPA’s Tools for Schools action kit is a great tool available to guide the school community through the voluntary process of reducing exposures to indoor environmental contaminants. By forming a team under the direction of school administration the work can begin. Through this process parents can get a better handle on their school’s environment, and make steps toward a healthier facility.
Florence Nightingale, Environmentalist
I became interested in environmental health through my work with asthmatic children. But then I realized that this is a fundamental nursing approach. Florence Nightingale was all about environmental health. Cleaning up the environment gets us back to the basics in terms of nursing. That’s where good health starts.
Linda Mendonca is a school nurse in Rhode Island. She is the President of the RI Certified School Nurse Teachers Association, Chair of the RI Lung Association Board, and sits on the School Workgroup Subcommittee of the RI Department of Health’s Asthma Coalition. She is also a member of the National Association of School Nurses, a Moms Clean Air Force partner. All this and she is working toward her Masters Degree in Advanced Public Health Nursing at RUSH University in Chicago. Thank you Linda for your tireless advocacy on behalf of children’s health!