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Nurse staffing problems force some CPS kids to stay home

Mason Williams was supposed to start kindergarten last week at Blair Early Childhood Center on the South Side.

Instead, the 5-year-old boy stayed home because Chicago Public Schools failed to provide a nurse to shadow him. Mason has a disability, so a CPS nurse is supposed to be with him throughout the school day to ensure the medical equipment that helps him breathe is always working properly.

“He likes school. I feel bad, it is his kindergarten year,” said Mason’s mother, Sofelia Whitehead.

It turns out Mason wasn’t alone. Several parents and CPS officials interviewed by the Better Government Association confirmed troubles with nurse staffing during back-to-school week, with nurses not in place for more than 30 children who needed them.

The cause of the problems wasn’t totally clear. CPS officials wouldn’t give a reason, instead releasing a written statement saying that CPS “places the utmost importance on making sure all of our students are in class and receiving the proper supports and services.”

A CPS official confirmed there were more than 30 kids affected, but it’s uncertain how many of them stayed home and for how long. Mason has stayed at home for five days because there was no nurse for him, according to his mother.

RCM Technologies, a New Jersey company that in June was awarded a four-year, $30 million CPS contract to provide nurses, didn’t return numerous calls. The contract was formally signed in August. Some parents blame that quick turnaround for the shortage.

According to CPS, 156 children in the district get one-on-one care. Another 13,000 have a medical issue, such as asthma or diabetes, requiring some nurse attention.

Most school nurses are directly employed by CPS. But for at least 20 years, CPS has also hired private companies to provide what are called “supplemental nurses” to support students who need one-on-one medical care or are in small groups.

There used to be several private firms serving in that role, but the Board of Education opted to bring in RCM to replace them after being assured by CPS staff that the company would be able to help recruit nurses and “utilize resources more effectively and efficiently.”

RCM will be more costly than the group of companies it replaced, records show. Over the past two years, the three departing nursing firms collectively were paid just over $14 million, CPS records show.

RCM, which also provides senior care and home care in the private sector, is slated to get about $7.5 million a year, or $15 million over two years.

But the company also is absorbing some bureaucratic functions from the district, not only hiring private nurses but also handling scheduling, training and recruiting of all nurses — those employed directly by CPS and those on contract.

Whitehead said she didn’t know that a nurse wasn’t in place for her son until she called Blair, 6751 W. 63rd Place, on the Friday before the school year was to begin. Mason attended preschool at Blair last year, and Whitehead said she was told by Blair staff that the nurse with him last year could continue, but that nurse would have to agree to go to work for RCM and would need a new background check.

Blair Principal Karen Bryar told a BGA reporter she’d be “happy” to talk about the situation if given permission by school system’s press office, overseen by CPS CEO Forrest Claypool. But a Claypool spokesman refused to give the OK.

Mason is seriously disabled. A lung collapsed when he was 1, and he now has a breathing tube and isn’t greatly mobile or verbal, according to his mother.

Mason’s nurse from last year, Cheryl Chinski, said she is in a difficult position. She loves Mason and saw improvements in him with mobility and with the boy recognizing his own photo.

But she’s still employed by ATC Health Services Inc., one of the three firms replaced by RCM, and she signed a noncompete deal with the New York-based company.

ATC sued CPS and RCM in July, alleging RCM has been trying to raid its workforce.

Whitehead, a 36-year-old South Shore resident, said Mason is being treated like a second-class citizen.

“I am feeling like special needs kids are treated as though they aren’t as important as normal kids,” Whitehead said. “It is just not fair. They should be able to start just like any other kid.”

Sarah Karp is a senior investigator for the Better Government Association. She can be reached at skarp@bettergov.org or (312) 525-3483.