As students from across the country prepare to return to classrooms in the middle of a pandemic, a nationwide school nurse shortage has health experts concerned about how well some districts will be able to handle potential outbreaks of COVID-19.
Linda Mendonca oversees the National Association of School Nurses. As she thinks about empty classrooms beginning to fill back up with students, she can’t help but be filled with anxiety.
“We don’t have a road map for all of this, so when you don’t have a road map, that makes it a little more challenging,” she said.
School nurses will be playing a critical role in the reopening of schools. They’re being asked to monitor kids for COVID-19 symptoms and even keep track of absentee rates to spot potential trends. In some cases, school nurses will help local health departments with contact tracing if an outbreak occurs at a school.
But a nationwide school nurse shortage puts a lot of that in jeopardy.
“In the midst of a pandemic, there should be a nurse in every school, and there’s not,” Mendonca explained.
About 25 percent of the nation’s schools will start this year without a school nurse. It’s a startling statistic that has public health officials particularly concerned, in the middle of a pandemic.
The average school nurse makes about $46,000. There’s also a simple funding problem. School nurses are often the first to get cut when districts need to eliminate positions. The need is so great that the National Association of School Nurses is advocating for 10,000 new nurses in the next federal stimulus bill.
“The school nurse is so important that there needs to be a full-time nurse in school every day at all schools,” said Jenny Gormley, who’s served as a school nurse in Massachusetts for years.
Gormley’s hope is that in the face of this pandemic, districts across the country will find ways to support nurses with both PPE and funding.
“We all want students back learning, but we want to do it safely,” she added.
As parents attempt to send their kids safely back to school, school nurses could be one of the best prescriptions for success.