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Reopening plans amid pandemic shine light on Florida's school nursing shortage

Some school nurses cover multiple schools at one time
Posted at 5:01 PM, Jul 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-18 20:57:08-04

FLORIDA — It’s a place school districts have never been before. How do you welcome back students with new rules on when to wear masks, how far to social distance and which symptoms prompt a rapid response?

These are just a few of the challenges facing Florida educators as they iron out how to open school doors to students during a national health crisis.

But amid the continuous questions and unclear answers, is the reality that even during a pandemic, many Florida schools will be opening without a full-time certified school nurse on campus.

“A trained school nurse in whatever capacity on campus is the best solution,” said Linda Kearschner, President of Florida’s PTA.

Equipping every Florida public school with a full-time nurse has been a decades-old fight.

“We’ve had an active force on that issue since the early 1970’s,” said Kearschner.

In Florida, school nurses and health aide staff are hired by either the Florida Department of Health (FDOH), the local school district or a community partner.

According to an FDOH spokesperson, “school health nurses are continuously working with local school administrators and county health departments to ensure school clinics are fully prepared for school reopening.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), schools should have one certified school nurse for every 750 students. In Florida, 2017 school data [the latest available] shows the ratio was one school nurse for every 2,392 students.

“That’s what my schools consist of so it’s not shocking at all,” said Katherine Burdge, President-elect of Florida’s Association of School Nurses.

Burdge is an RN and works as a registered certified school nurse for the Hillsborough County School District and covers two to three schools at any given time.

When asked how districts expect to welcome back students amid a health crisis when certified school nurses are not available at every school Brudge responded, “the school districts really need to come up with a plan in place to make sure there is someone with health experience in every school.”

In Florida, school nurse certification is not a requirement on campus. Many school districts tout having a licensed practical nurse or LPN at each school but they lack the qualifications of a registered nurse or RN.

According to FDOH, there are approximately 2,286 registered (RN) and licensed practical nurses (LPN) who work in Florida’s 4,200 public schools. An additional 1,431 health aides also help fill the gap but without the qualifications of an RN, campus RN’s are often assigned to cover multiple schools at a time.

“There are some counties across our state that some nurses have five or six schools apiece,” said Lisa Kern, Supervisor of Health Services for Pasco County Schools.

In Pasco, the district has a clinical assistant assigned to each school, LPN’s are available to medically fragile students and it’s 45 RN’s cover two to three schools at a time.

“It’s times like these when this inequity, in terms of resources, a light is definitely shone on them and it reminds us all about areas we definitely need to improve,” said Kern.