Help Wanted: School Nurses

Only 45 percent of America’s public schools have a full-time school nurse

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Should your child become sick or hurt while at school, a school nurse may not be as readily available to help. Nationwide, schools are struggling to find enough nurses.

Statewide, public schools average 1,007 students per one school nurse, according to the National Education Association.

“There is definitely a shortage, like a shortage of all nurses: 1 million by 2022,” said Mary Maher, head of nursing at Nazareth College. “School nurses are going to be as adversely affected as anywhere else, but school districts don’t always see the need for school nurses.”

Only 45 percent of America’s public schools have a full-time school nurse, according to the National Association of School Nurses. But that doesn’t mean school nurses aren’t needed. The New York State Association of School Nurses supports legislation that would place a school nurse in every school building.

With childhood obesity on the rise, the complex health issues related to obesity may not receive the care they need. More children than ever have been identified as having life-threatening allergies.

Many districts have shed routine screenings for health issues, which shifts the burden onto pediatricians — providing parents schedule regular well-child visits.

Eileen Davis, director of school nurse services for BOCES, said that “it’s a struggle” to provide nursing coverage to every school in the district. Sometimes, support staff may help with routine, non-medical tasks to reserve those with training for medical issues.

“We take care of the needs and we have an ongoing list of things that are not as important,” Davis said. “If we get some down time, we play catch-up.”

She also said that some screenings have been set aside so that acute needs receive the help they need.

“Children that are in pain cannot learn so we focus on their needs,” Davis said.

Davis said that maintaining school nurses is more than about applying ice packs and bandages. School nurses may be involved with assessing risks during emergency situations, assisting with medication and other health-supportive therapies, and counseling students on health, nutrition and hygiene.

Families without sufficient health care coverage may rely upon the school nurse for their children’s routine health care needs and screenings. Without a school nurse, those children may not receive the care they need.

Children often confide in nurses as they build trust with them. For example, a child may tell a school nurse about domestic violence or a lack of food at home.

“It’s their safe place,” Davis said. “They feel like their school nurse is someone they can trust to talk with.”

She thinks that training aides for just performing screenings would give nurses more time to focus on medical needs. The aides could also save money in the budget since their pay would be at a lower rate than that of registered nurses.

“If we train these individuals so they can do screenings, it’s fewer tasks for the nurse so she can provide the needs and comfort care for the students,” Davis said.

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