Last Updated on February 22, 2024
Even before Covid-19 struck, many schools found it difficult to hire or retain the nurses needed to ensure the health and safety of their students and faculties. But even after the pandemic, those challenges have only intensified. So, as we prepare to enter another academic year, here’s a closer look at the most impactful school nurse staffing trends for the new year, and a few helpful tips on how to navigate them.
The New Normal: Understanding Today’s Most Impactful School Nurse Staffing Trends
There’s no doubt school nurse staffing has gotten more difficult in the past few years. Challenges like faltering attendance, staff cuts, and budget shortfalls have shifted priorities for administrators across the United States. Yet those difficulties don’t change the fact that every school needs skilled nurses — perhaps now more than ever.
For decades, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended a ratio of one nurse per every 750 students. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urged every school to employ at least one registered nurse (RN). But even before the pandemic, few schools could meet these requirements. And today’s school nurse staffing trends only makes that challenge more serious.
Trend #1: A Shortage of School Nurses
Many communities faced a shortage of school nurses for years before the pandemic arrived. According to data from the National Association of School Nurses (NASN), just three in five schools in the U.S. employed a nurse on a full-time basis in 2019. What’s more, only two in five had room in their budget for even a part-time nurse. And one in four didn’t have a nurse on staff at all.
Obviously, those numbers fall short of the recommendations from the CDC and AAP mentioned above. Even worse, with the general nationwide shortage of nurses, many districts simply don’t have access to the RNs they need, even if they do have the budget for them. The situation is even more critical in rural areas, where nurses often work in two or more schools per day.
Trend #2: Expanding Responsibilities for School Nurses
Fewer nurses serving more schools and an increased student population is another trend that’s creating challenges for administrators. Especially in rural areas, school nurses may be the only healthcare provider available to students — not just in schools, but in the overall community. As a result, these nurses are called upon to do more and more.
In the past, school nurses performed basic medical care like taking care of minor injuries and administering medication, and perhaps helping to care for those with chronic illness or disabilities. But today, schools and communities require more of school nurses than ever before. As a result, school nurses now handle a larger list of additional tasks, including:
- Helping treat mental health conditions
- Conducting health screenings
- Planning testing strategies for Covid-19 and other infectious diseases
- Preparing plans for outbreaks of new diseases
- Helping coordinate and operate pop-up vaccine clinics
- Serving as liaisons between schools, families, and the public
- Helping to develop educational programs, both for schools and communities
- Administering anti-bullying programs
- Providing sex education
- Providing counseling and treatment services for substance abuse
- Performing outreach to at-risk students
- Educating other faculty and staff on disease prevention
- Assisting with deliveries for medication and food, and more.
Trend #3: Job Dissatisfaction and More Mental Health Struggles
It should come as no surprise that the increase in responsibilities is having its own impact. Especially since the pandemic, today’s school nurses are under more stress than ever before. The result is a tendency to seek other career paths in more lucrative fields. And that acts as a catch-22, worsening the shortage that’s causing many of these challenges in the first place.
According to a 2022 survey from the NASN, CDC and the National Association of State School Nurse Consultants (NASSNC), almost half of all school nurses report experiencing at least one symptom of an adverse mental health condition like depression, anxiety of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A majority also reported “feeling bullied, threatened or harassed” since the pandemic began in 2020.
The survey also showed that many school nurses link these issues directly to their work experiences. Some of the reasons for this growing sense of job dissatisfaction include needing to work more than 40 hours per week, a perceived lack of support from employers, and inadequate compensation.
School Nurse Staffing Trends: Consequences and Solutions
These school nurse staffing trends matter because they directly impact the wellbeing of the nation’s youth. “The school nursing shortage ultimately hurts children,” explains a report from Nurse.org. “As diseases like measles begin to rise, children are in dire need of school nurses. A quarter of all young children suffer from some type of chronic illness like diabetes or asthma.”
Solutions from CDC Mental Health Study
“Improving school nurse mental health is essential to creating safe environments for young people in our nation’s schools,” as CDC explains in a 2022 school nurse mental health study. That same report then goes on to list some potential solutions, including:
- Hiring more staff
- Providing access to mental health resources
- Engaging nurses in decision-making processes for the school
- Giving principals and managers the tools to help recognize signs of stress-related depression among nurses
Designating professional development days to offer “workplace training on stress prevention, resilience, and skill building to defuse tense situations”
Solution: Onboarding Licensed Practical Nurses
Yet these options may be out of reach for some budget-strapped schools. Some are dealing with the shortage in other ways. For instance, some are hiring licensed practical nurses (LPNs), rather than the RNs who typically do the job. While that may not be an ideal solution, it can provide better outcomes than resorting to the use of faculty members with no medical training to provide medical care.
Solution: Healthcare Workforce Providers
Partnering with a healthcare workforce solutions provider is another solution for schools with more modest budgets. These types of services can source nurses within a wider budget spectrum, as well as from other parts of the country. They can also provide contingency workers to fill in for limited periods, giving full-time nursing staff some much-needed vacation time.
In addition, partnering with a clinical workforce solutions provider helps administrators save time normally spent sourcing and hiring candidates. It also helps ensure that the nurses being hired are fully screened — including background check, credentialing and licensure.
Get Ready for Today’s Biggest School Nurse Staffing Trends with CareerStaff
At CareerStaff, we specialize in providing top-quality nurses to meet any needs, including school nurses at every level of skill and experience. If you’re interested in discovering a budget-friendly solution to the school nurse shortage in your area, you can read more about our services here. Or, submit a staffing request now to get started today.