Put Immunization on Your Back to School Checklist

Q&A with National Association of School Nurses

September means back to school – and with that in mind, the Modern Medicaid Alliance and our members have been focusing on the best way to keep kids healthy, including the importance of immunizations. We sat down with National Association of School Nurses (NASN) President Laurie G. Combe, MN, RN, NCSN, to discuss which preventative services should be top-of-mind for families this fall.

NASN is a non-profit specialty nursing organization first incorporated in 1968 and now representing more than 17,000 school nurses and 50 affiliate school nurse organizations. The mission of NASN is to optimize student health and learning by advancing the practice of school nursing.

Modern Medicaid Alliance: Why is it important for children to receive recommended immunizations?

Laurie Combe: Children’s immune systems naturally protect against some diseases, but not all. Certain diseases, such as measles, can wipe out already-established immune system memory, which can lead to children being more susceptible to pneumonia, severe gastrointestinal diseases, and other health problems. Vaccinating children can also help the health of the entire population, as more people are immunized, the spread of diseases that do impact a population is limited – also known as herd immunity.

I also want to stress that on-time immunization is essential because it helps prevent diseases before an exposure happens. Vaccines are scheduled according to evidence-based findings, and children have greater risk of complications, so it is important to immunize them on time.

Alliance: Where can parents and friends find information about the immunizations recommended for children and mothers?

Laurie: Parents should seek out factual information about immunizations. The Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a page specifically designed for parents that can answer a lot of questions. I would also recommend Immunize.org, which provides a full list of reliable sources of immunization information. Another organization is the Immunization Partnership, which includes resources for parents, coalitions, and providers.

Alliance: Can children get the vaccinations they need at school?

Laurie: Many schools host vaccine events, and I encourage parents to check to see if their child’s school is holding one this fall. Other schools allow school nurses to administer vaccines as students need them, or have them available in school-based health centers. These programs do a terrific job providing vaccinations to many students, but not all schools offer these services. In those situations, we encourage the nurse to provide evidence-based information to parents and provide strong vaccine recommendations to the students they serve. Medicaid covers all of the recommended vaccines for children and even some vaccines for adults, so check with your health care provider!

Alliance: What other preventive care services for children are important to get during the back-to-school months?

Laurie: We strongly encourage all students to get an annual wellness exam, whether they are playing sports during the school year or not. Research shows that as children move into adolescence, the uptake of annual physicals dwindles. However, this is an important time to screen for and protect against diseases like HPV and meningococcal. Medicaid covers a wide range of preventive services for children, including annual physicals and screenings.

School nurses can also refer students to specialists if they have chronic conditions or have challenges with their vision or hearing. Given that a large part of learning is taken in visually or through hearing, a deficit in either of those areas significantly impacts a student’s academic success. NASN is pleased to partner with the Sight for Students program, which provides school nurses with an unlimited number of gift certificates for eye exams and glasses to be shared with students who meet eligibility requirements. 

Alliance: What are some of the barriers you see to children receiving their recommended immunizations and preventive services?

Laurie: Right now, the biggest barrier I see is the lack of education and awareness around the value of immunizations. I cannot stress the importance of immunizations enough since natural immune systems are not equipped to fend off certain diseases. I encourage all parents to read trusted sources for their information and talk with a provider whom they trust.

Some schools are also working to address barriers concerning parents having to take time off work by hosting vaccine days and offering vaccines administered by the school nurse or in a school-based health center. School nurses are leveraging vaccine registry systems to access immunization records. These systems help keep records in one place and avoid the duplication of vaccine administration.