Two full-time nurses will be reinstated in a Canberra special school after a trial of a nursing telephone hotline left teachers in charge of complex medical procedures including peg feeding, insulin injections and seizure management.
The Australian Education Union has slammed the Education Directorate for allowing the trial of a medical advice phoneline to go ahead in special schools, leaving staff struggling to meet medication schedules and health issues at the expense of teaching.
A mother of a 14-year-old boy at the school said that just two weeks ago her son had had a seizure which required his teacher to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. "One of the main reasons I sent him to that school was because of his severe epilepsy and the fact that nurses would be available if he needed them. It made me feel at ease knowing the nurses were there," she said.
The mother, who did not wish to be identified, said she was grateful for the nurses' return. "Apart from anything I think it is too much on the teachers, who need to focus on teaching and not nursing as well."
ACT union secretary Glenn Fowler said staff had been advised to use an off-site nurse telephone hotline in the event of a medical emergency but were highly stressed about performing quite complex and often invasive procedures on students with high needs.
The trial, run in partnership with the Health Directorate, led to the removal of the two nurses in the second half of last year.
After a number of representations by the union, ACT Education Minister Joy Burch decided on Friday to reinstate the two nurses at the school from the start of second term.
A spokesman for Ms Burch said the Healthcare Access at School pilot had been in development since 2012 and focused on the individual health care needs of students to participate in school when they otherwise may not have been able to attend.
It was being trialled in two special schools, and, as part of the transition to the new system, a similar support was now being provided to mainstream schools with students with additional needs.
The spokesman said the feedback from parents had been positive, particularly where the nurse-led "delegation of care" model had allowed some students with additional health needs to attend their local school.
But Mr Fowler said the program needed a complete rethink when medical needs were complex, such as in special schools.
He said it was unacceptable for educators and teaching assistants to have spent several months of term time being responsible for peg feeding (through a tube straight into the stomach), peg medication, seizure support and emergency medication administration, diabetes management including insulin injections and finger prick tests to test for blood sugar levels. Despite a lack of medical training, staff were also expected to monitor student health for signs of deterioration.
Many of the students at the special school were non-verbal requiring teachers to monitor them closely for any signs of a health emergency. Teachers at the school had expressed anxiety and distress at being responsible for the health of their students as well as their educational needs.
Mr Fowler noted staff also faced a significant increase to their workload as they were expected to manage medication storage and disposal, the transport of medications to and from school with students, information and confidentiality requirements around the complex health needs to students, maintaining first aid protocols, communicating with parents and all the associated paperwork of medicating students.
Mr Fowler welcomed the return of the nurses and noted the union did not know how far the trial was being extended across ACT special schools or the reasons for its introduction "other than, presumably to save money".
"There has been considerable stress and confusion for many weeks while staff have waited for their minister to act decisively. A partial outcome was achieved late on the last day of term, and staff will now read about it in the newspaper. Numerous questions about medical care in schools remain unanswered. Educators and their union demand proper consultation and respect," Mr Fowler said.