School nurses are the eyes and ears of public health in schools. Donna Mazyck should know—she spent five years as a school health nurse in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, worked for 13 years within the Maryland State Department of Education to improve school health services, and has served as Executive Director of the National Association of School Nurses since 2011.

“From an individual and population focus,” Donna says, “school nurses have their pulse on the issues that adversely impact students. Nurses in general give care that takes into account all aspects of their clients’ lives. This includes school nurses providing health services to students. Physical health symptoms may be a harbinger of an issue rooted in an emotional, behavioral, or mental health concern.”

“While school nurses are not primary mental health care clinicians,” she continues, “they have the clinical expertise to assess and refer to appropriate care.”

Because of the rise in school shootings, the opioid crisis, students experiencing homelessness, among other issues, the availability of school nurses is critical. Yet, 25 percent of U.S. schools lack a school nurse. The answer, Donna says, is a focus on student equity. “This focus—reducing barriers to learning and health—prompts advocacy for access to school health services to meet student needs.” She notes that education funds most school nurse positions, but a growing number of states are now receiving Medicaid reimbursement for school health services provided to students in the general school population. “This allows for release of education funds to pay for education resources while allowing health insurance reimbursements for health care services provided in the school setting.” Additional education funds could make a significant difference for student learning resources.

When Donna first began work as a school nurse in a high school, she did so out of a desire to work with youth professionally, “as I had been working with youth as a volunteer in my community.” However, she didn’t expect the sheer volume of visits each day in the health room, nor the prevalence of mental health concerns experienced by the students. She recalls one incident, hearing several students in only a single week share recent experiences with the deaths of closed loves ones. “I spoke to the school psychologist about co-leading a grief group. We initiated the group and discovered additional students experiencing grief—and the group became very important for meeting student needs and helping them recover from grief. One of my greatest accomplishments in impacting students and their well-being, though,” Donna says, “is, in my current role, collaborating with the National Center on School Mental Health to provide education and skill-building for school nurses and other school health providers as they encounter students with or at-risk for mental health concerns.”

Donna Mazyck as an undergraduate, featured in a Penn Nursing brochureDonna Mazyck as an undergraduate, featured in a Penn Nursing brochureBeing on the front lines of student health is not something Donna foresaw for herself as a child—she wanted to be a veterinarian. But over time she came to realize that a nursing degree would allow her to return to her community to teach and serve individuals —such as her mother, who experienced health challenges related to the social determinants of underemployment, single parenting, and lack of high school completion—and groups how to navigate the stressors that impact their health and to incorporate healthy practices in their lives. She was a determined and passionate student at Penn Nursing, so much so that she was featured in a marketing brochure for the School at the time. “While at Penn I thrived in the challenges and opportunities found in community health nursing,” Donna says, “Penn Nursing prepared me for population-based care as well as individual care provided in a community-based setting—which have been a focus for most of my nursing career.”

While Donna’s work has touched the lives of thousands of students, she notes that you don’t have to be a school nurse or work in the field to make a difference. “The public can ask if school nurses are in the schools in their communities, and they can advocate for students to have access to a school nurse. Students may have home and community factors that are barriers to optimal health and educational attainment. If there are barriers that when reduced can support learning, students should have access to the support. Inequity that contributes to barriers is unacceptable and intolerable.”

Random fact: Donna is a history buff. Mrs. Mair, her fifth grade teacher, instilled in her a respect for and interest in African-American history—and for several years, Donna portrayed Sojourner Truth while teaching fourth grade students about famous African-Americans from Maryland who escaped slavery or were free-born.