We have heard so much about the difficulty first responders in hospitals have been going through, and rightfully so; they have handled the worst parts of what this pandemic has thrown at us for more than 18 months.
One overlooked group of responders are school nurses.
According to the National Association of School Nurses, only 40% of schools nationwide have a full time registered nurse on their staff. 35% of these schools have a part-time registered nurses, while 25% of the remaining schools do not have any registered nurses at all.
COVID has seen a rise in nurses leaving to pursue other careers, or retiring early. This has caused some nurses to fill the vacancies.
“We were working late nights. We were working weekends. I mean some of us were putting in 60-70 plus hours per week,” said Monica Wood, a registered nurse at the JeffCo Public School District in Colorado. “My family life took a hit, you know. I wasn’t home.”
JeffCo Public Schools serves 80,000 kids and 50,000 employees across 143 schools. The district employs 73 nurses to provide care, as it has lost almost 30% of its nursing staff in the past four months.
“A lot of it became exhaustion, pure exhaustion of the level of work,” said Julie Wilken, director of health services for JeffCo Public Schools. “[Nurses] are not only adding on the work of COVID, but now they’re adding on additional schools and additional work on top of it.”
To handle the issues districts have started using hiring agencies to fill the gaps, but those have brought issues of their own. These nurses may not have ever worked in a school or be brand-new to the profession. They also tend to cost more.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics school nurses earn nearly $20,000 less per year than nurses in hospitals (at $58,530 vs. 75,030-), but the agencies charge the same as those in hospitals.
It has left school districts in a tight spot with few options for filling the vacancies, as fewer applicants are available to interview with them. Schools say that it can be difficult to find money, especially in districts that have already adjusted to COVID.
“I take that very personally and professionally,” said Wood. “I want to keep our schools open.”