Registered school nurse Andrea Smith is trained to recognize signs of asthma.
Coughing. Wheezing. Shortness of breath.
Smith, a nurse at Fort Worth’s Forest Oak Middle School, knows that an asthma episode involving a child who is struggling to breathe can turn serious quickly.
“Your adrenalin starts to run,” she said. “With asthma, the lungs can just shut down.”
Some asthma attacks result in an ambulance being called to the school. A child can be out sick for days.
To better address the needs of students with respiratory problems, Tarrant County leaders, educators and healthcare professionals are pushing to expand a program called Asthma 411. The school-based program aims to keep more students in class by helping them control their breathing problems.
School trustees are considering an agreement between Fort Worth schools and the University of North Texas Health Science Center that will bring the Asthma 411 program to all campuses next fall. The health science center will provide training and Cook Children's will supply the equipment and medicine needed for the added services.
Asthma-related absences stand in the way of schooling, with the children facing a 3 to 5 percent increase in the risk of failing in math and reading, experts told a group of educators during a recent meeting. It’s estimated that there are 56,000 children with asthma in Tarrant County.
“Asthma is the major chronic health problem of kids in school,” said David Sterling, a professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center who researches asthma.
Asthma 411 proponents want to put the program in every Tarrant County school.
“I think it makes all kinds of sense,” said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, who is working to expand the program through a collaboration with school districts, Cook Children’s Medical Center, JPS Health Network and the health science center. Organizers want to put Asthma 411 on campuses throughout the county so an estimated 330,000 students can have greater access to emergency treatments.
Schools are being offered a huge incentive to sign up. Cook Children’s has pledged an estimated $146,000 to pay for the equipment, drugs and campus training incentives needed to outfit schools with the right tools.
“We are trying to remove the barriers from keeping this from happening,” said Larry Tubb, senior vice president of system planning at Cook Children’s.
“Every school — private, public — if they have a nurse, we want nebulizers and medicine in the school,” Whitley said. “Cook Children’s and UNT Health Science Center and JPS are all on board helping us with this.”
Sterling said that research, from Cook Children’s, shows that about 20 to 25 percent of all school-age children in Tarrant County have asthma.
“If you look at that from a population basis, it is major,” Sterling said.
The program has been underway at Eastern Hills Elementary and Forest Oak Middle schools since 2013, said Michael Steinert, assistant superintendent for student services for the Fort Worth school district. This year, the district added 18 campuses to the program.
Plans are to take the program districtwide in the fall, he said.
Under the program, piloted by the health science center, campuses are equipped with nebulizers, tubing, face masks and albuterol, Steinert said.
Trained school nurses educate parents and obtain permission forms that allow students to get a dose of albuterol if needed.
The program gives parents a sense of comfort, knowing that their youngsters’ asthma can be treated by a school nurse, Steinert said.
The program has resulted in a significant decrease in asthma-related 911 calls from the schools, according to the health science center. At Eastern Hills and Forest Oak, 911 calls were down over consecutive two-year periods, and asthma-related student absences dropped by 52 percent.
Steinert said 1,500 students are signed up in the Fort Worth school district’s program. The district administered 50 treatments during the fall semester, he said.
“We were amazed at the results — amazed,” said Trustee Tobi Jackson, who represents District 2, which includes Eastern Hills and Forest Oak.
“We have to educate the community,” she said.