MOUNT LAUREL — "There's no food in my house for breakfast."

If school nurse Cecilia Spehalski hears that more than once from the same child, she's on the phone with their parents to make sure everything's okay at home, and if it's not, she offers resources to help, such as directions to a local food pantry.

Students walking in a hallway
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Spehalski handles 475 children and 60 staff members at Springville Elementary. But she's not just there to hand out Band-Aids and test for fevers. The role of a school nurse in New Jersey has drastically changed from what you may remember as a K-12 student.

As a spokeswoman for the New Jersey State School Nurses Association, Spehalski said school nurses throughout the Garden State have become the first point of medical contact — or primary care — for many families. Families with two working parents, she said, don't have much time to spare for a doctor's appointment during the week.

"You'll often get, 'I don't feel good. Mom told me to stop at the school nurse and see if I need to see the doctor,'" Spehalski said. "We're the first eyes and ears that assess a child and refer them to professionals for further treatment."

School nurses are also working with the child studies teams to deliver the appropriate help for students with autism and behavioral issues, she said.

"If anyone wants to know anything about a child in the school, generally the first person they come to is the school nurse to see what they know about the family," she said.

And even in affluent districts, such as Mount Laurel, where only a fraction of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, students come in hungry on a daily basis.

School nurses' patients have changed, as well, Spehalski added. Children today carry much more stress, caused by busy schedules that rarely provide a break Monday through Friday.

But that break is a must, especially at a young age. Spehalski has had children visiting her office for the simple reason of exhaustion.

"They need 15 minutes — I call them 'power naps' — where they need to regroup so that they could make it through the day," she said.

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