If Addressing Nursing Shortages, Don't Forget School Nurses

School health services for students have been referred to as a hidden healthcare system. This third school year of the COVID-19 pandemic sheds light on a system at a critical juncture. More than any time in my 30 years as a frontline state and national school nurse, the current work environment creates multiplied job responsibilities and moral distress.

The current school nurse shortage threatens the physical and mental health support of our nation's students, which is vital to learning. Our already overtaxed school health services system is at the brink during this pandemic. 

In a typical year, back-to-school time is busy for school health services staff, complete with drafting new care plans, confirming students' routine vaccination status, and conducting screenings. This year, school nurses' already full workload is overburdened with contact tracing, COVID-19 symptom screening, and testing. School nurses make contact tracing calls on weeknights and weekends. Carefully planned back-to-school routines are disrupted when students or staff test positive for COVID and isolation or quarantine procedures are implemented. Screening and testing routines supplant routine priorities.

It's important to note that during a pandemic, routine healthcare needs don't stop. Today's students are more likely to face medically complex conditions and chronic health illnesses, including asthma, diabetes, food allergies, obesity, mental health, and behavioral issues.  School nurses have knowledge, assessment skills and judgment needed to help manage these conditions. School nurses are critical in identifying and referring students for a host of behavioral health concerns, leveling the field regarding health inequities, promoting healthy behaviors, and serving as an early warning system for children and families in crisis or otherwise at risk of abuse and neglect.

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