School nurses fear for their jobs as pandemic relief ends

School nurses are growing increasingly concerned that their workloads could potentially increase, or their positions could be eliminated entirely, once federal pandemic relief funds for U.S. schools expire by the end of the year.

School districts have until the end of September to allocate whatever remains of the billions of dollars in coronavirus relief that Congress allocated to them in separate installments during the pandemic, as per the Education Department.

The looming deadline has sparked concerns among education advocates about potential budget deficits nationwide. The impending fiscal cliff could lead to “severe implications” for students, such as teacher layoffs and school closures, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Despite a long-standing shortage of nurses in U.S. schools, the situation improved slightly when the federal government approved Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding. Many districts used this funding to hire nurses. With access to these federal funds winding down, some school leaders are now trying to secure funding from other sources to retain nurses. Districts in Oregon and Oklahoma reportedly contemplated layoffs. During a city budget hearing last week, New York City education department officials cautioned that approximately $65 million in federal funding for nearly 400 school nurses is set to run out.

“We’re appreciative of the stimulus funding that has allowed us to ensure every school has a school nurse on site,” said Jenna Lyle, a spokesperson for NYC public schools, in a statement to USA TODAY. “And we will continue to advocate for and prioritize this need through the budget process.”

Kate King, a school nurse in Ohio and the president of the National Association of School Nurses, highlighted the uncertainty surrounding the source of nurse salaries amid the pandemic relief funding. She has been hearing from nurses in various districts nationwide who are anxious about the possible outcomes ahead.

“When districts began hiring during the pandemic, they realized the value of school nurses in a school setting,” she explained. “Unfortunately, the positions funded by ESSER funds were not considered sustainable.”

Nursing shortage, explained:The school nurse role remains crucial as children’s health issues, such as suicide and allergies, soar.

Pandemic helped alleviate the school nurse shortage

According to the latest survey data from the school nurses’ association, approximately two-thirds of public schools have a full-time nurse. While this figure is higher than some pre-pandemic staffing estimates, it still falls below national standards. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics formally recommended that schools have at least one full-time nurse.

“Every school should have a full-time nurse,” emphasized Sarah Part, a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit group Advocates for Children of New York. “This was true before the pandemic and remains true now.” Part’s group has urged New York City Mayor Eric Adams to secure funding from alternative sources in the budget to support nurses paid with federal funding.

While federal funding is running out, students’ health needs have not diminished. In fact, these needs have expanded in recent years, noted Robin Cogan, a New Jersey school nurse with over two decades of experience.

“It is disheartening for school nurses who have dedicated years to school health to lose their jobs in this manner,” Cogan expressed. “These outcomes are entirely preventable.”

In rural areas, public school districts face significant resource shortages, as only approximately 56% employ full-time nurses compared to around 70% in urban schools, according to the school nurses’ association. About 6% of schools nationally do not have any nurses on campus.

Read more:School districts explore innovative solutions to address nurse shortage

Chronic absenteeism and the role of school nurses

The potential threat to school nursing positions coincides with the persistent issue of chronic absenteeism, a challenge that school nurses may uniquely address, which continues to impact American schools.

Recent research indicates that the number of students missing at least 10% of the school year surged by approximately 6.5 million between the 2018-19 and 2021-22 school years. Last week, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona acknowledged this issue and mentioned that the Biden administration is developing new resources to reduce absences.

A study published last year in The Journal of School Nursing highlights the critical role school nurses play in maintaining student attendance. The study emphasizes that students who frequently miss part of the school day often have regular interactions with their nurse, allowing nurses to intervene and prevent chronic absenteeism.

Keep these findings in mind when making budget decisions, urged Knoo Lee, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri’s nursing school and one of the study’s authors.

“School nurses can make a significant difference,” Lee emphasized. “Many schools lack that crucial support.”

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