Crystal Perez poses with textbooks and class files from her Master of Science in Nursing degree at Eastern Mennonite University. Perez, assistant director of health services with Allentown City School District in Pennsylvania, led an initiative to launch a federally funded vaccine program for uninsured or underinsured schoolchildren as part of her final capstone project for the degree. Delayed by the pandemic, the program started in spring 2022. (Courtesy photo)

MSN grad launches Vaccines for Children Program in Pennsylvania school district

As she began her final coursework to earn a Master of Science in Nursing degree at Eastern Mennonite University, Crystal Perez saw an opportunity to impact the greater community. Partnering with the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Perez led an initiative in the Allentown City School District (ASD) to launch Vaccines for Children, a federally funded program that offers free vaccines for children 0-18 who are uninsured or underinsured. Perez is the district’s assistant director of health services, overseeing school nurses and health services. 

There was no blueprint to follow to implement the program—Allentown is only the second school district in Pennsylvania to participate. Additionally, the process was delayed by about a year due to the COVID pandemic; while Perez’s project began in the spring and summer of 2021, the program didn’t launch until spring 2022.

This did not stop Perez, who was able to live out her ongoing mission to protect student health, promote academic success, and preserve community relationships. She believes that EMU’s MSN program added to her philosophical foundation. “All my professors were so supportive and encouraging,” she said. “They made me believe I could actually do this. I was inspired to make a change.” 

Historically, over 1,000 students district-wide are undervaccinated at the start of the school year, which is grounds for exclusion according to Pennsylvania law. Exclusion can lead to missing valuable classroom instruction time and strained relationships between school staff and families, Perez said. 

From a public health perspective, immunizations protect both children and the community, she added. Though the pandemic created logistical challenges, Perez said this was an advantageous time to implement the program with the public more focused on disease prevention and immunizations.

This initiative targets communities experiencing “sometimes insurmountable barriers” obtaining immunizations, she said. School nurses are the most consistent and accessible medical provider for many children, especially those from disadvantaged socioeconomic groups and racial minority groups. 

Now, instead of referring students to outside providers for vaccines, certified school nurses may administer vaccines themselves after providing families with a letter of explanation, a consent form, and vaccine information. If the student attends school in a building not storing vaccines, the district will either arrange to take the student to another school, or a nurse will bring the vaccine to the student.

Perez and her team developed forms, procedure guidelines, protocols along with obtaining required VFC certifications and passing inspections. District nurses completed online training from the CDC, a full-day, in-person in-service, and one-on-one staff training. Perez cited the “generous support and guidance of the Allentown Health Bureau” as essential to getting the project up and running. The bureau donated all of the needed equipment for the project: vaccine storage units, monitoring equipment, and other supplies.

By the end of the school year, school nurses district-wide will begin to distribute vaccines from storage units at Allen High School, Dieruff High School and Central Elementary School. The district plans to expand the initiative to South Mountain and Harrison Morton middle schools in the fall. 

“Crystal’s MSN capstone project serves as a great example of the impact EMU’s MSN, DNP, and undergraduate nursing students have on the health needs of our communities and beyond,” said Don Tyson, the director of EMU’s MSN program. “Crystal demonstrated compassion for the needs of a very vulnerable urban population of students and decided to blaze a trail to a wonderful model for other schools to emulate.”