School-Based Physical Therapy: How to Meet Critical Staffing Gaps

School-Based Physical Therapy: How to Meet Critical Staffing Gaps

With federal law mandating equal access for disabled children, school-based physical therapy has become a core function in many educational facilities. Yet the PTs and other staff needed to provide those services are in short supply, leaving many schools facing critical gaps.

Here’s a rundown of what to know about school-based PT in 2024, and how schools can overcome today’s biggest staffing challenges.

Why Is School-Based PT Staffing Important?

Working in either pull-out sessions — where students are engaged in a dedicated space like an office or gym — or in-class push-in sessions, school-based PTs help ensure the well-being of the entire student body. Unlike those who work in medical settings, though, school-based physical therapy professionals focus more on long-term disabilities than short-term injuries (like, say, a sprained ankle).

Additionally, as awareness increases of how those disabilities affect a student’s education, the importance of school-based PT also grows. By working with disabled children and their families, school-based PTs help ensure that each student has equal access to every aspect of the educational experience. And that’s not just an ideal but a requirement under federal law.

Laws Mandating School-Based PT Programs

What are the federal laws that require schools to offer physical therapy services?

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that children with disabilities receive full access to free public education, as well as “special education and related services.” Designed to be inclusive, the law requires facilities to accommodate disabled children within the same classroom as the rest of the student body, rather than in separate spaces. It also provides funding in the form of grants to “state educational agencies, institutions of higher education, and other nonprofit organizations.”
  • The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504 protects people with disabilities from being excluded from “programs and activities” receiving federal financial assistance. It’s also explicitly enforced “in public elementary and secondary schools.”
  • The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires equity for all school students, particularly those considered to be high-need or disadvantaged. Like IDEA, ESSA offers funding for these requirements. Grants are available in certain districts, or for the creation and management of special education facilities and scholarships.

What Are the Benefits of Investing in School PT Programs?

Besides meeting federal mandates, school-based physical therapy programs benefit educational facilities by helping to ensure that all students graduate at their full potential. The best school PT programs are innovative and inspiring, enriching the lives of the entire student body. (For instance, see the recent trend of using dogs to support not just therapy but mental health.)

An essential part of a school’s core staff, PTs work with other clinicians, teachers, and administrators to ensure equal access for students with special needs. This work typically includes:

  • Ensuring physical access for all students throughout a building, including stairs and ramps, as applicable, including classrooms, restrooms, cafeterias, etc.
  • Ensuring access to outdoor and playground spaces
  • Coordinating wellness and exercise activities for students with disabilities
  • Providing educational materials specific to students with cerebral palsy or other conditions
  • Helping procure and manage assistive devices and equipment like seating and mobility devices and communication aids
  • Helping train other school staff members on the use of equipment
  • Coordinating with students’ medical-based PTs — i.e., those who work in a clinical setting — to ensure consistent quality of care

School-Based Physical Therapy: Biggest Staffing Challenges

Rising PT Turnover

Despite these benefits, though, facilities may have difficulty maintaining a consistent school-based PT program, especially since the pandemic. For instance, PT burnout and turnover have surged in the profession in recent years, fueling a shortage of workers, especially in rural areas.

Other School Therapist Shortages

Unfortunately, PTs can also be hard to find in certain school districts — especially some of the more disadvantaged areas where equal access is now considered a priority. Subsequently, it can also be difficult to source the other professionals who make up therapy team. For example, including school-based physical therapy assistants (PTAs), occupational therapists (OTs), occupational therapist assistants (OTAs), school speech-language pathologists (SLPs), social workers, psychologists, and nurses.

Compliance and Staffing Concerns

Worse still, increasing turnover often requires the sourcing of these workers in the middle of the school year. That can interfere with a facility’s ability to fulfill its obligations to disadvantaged students throughout the entire year. Moreover, even where turnover isn’t an issue, the shortage makes it hard to fill in for planned and unplanned absences.

How to Meet School-Based Physical Therapy Needs

What can institutions do to overcome these challenges to providing a comprehensive school-based physical therapy program? While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, a number of options are available to help schools overcome the challenges they face. For instance:

#1: Utilize Telehealth Technology

School equity laws like IDEA make it necessary for schools to adapt their physical space to accommodate children with disabilities. However, those facilities may be able to leverage advancements in telehealth technology to fulfill other PT needs like exercise sessions or one-on-one counseling — first confirming, of course, that doing so is in compliance with any federal or state guidelines.

Pro Tip: Partner with a renowned clinical staffing provider for access to school-based PTs with telehealth experience.

#2: Engage with the PT Community

Schools can more readily source the PTs and other therapy professionals they need by relying not only on job listings but also on cultivating relationships within the therapy community. From engaging with physical therapy groups on social media sites like LinkedIn to working with local colleges that train therapists to attend or even co-sponsoring PT events, there are many ways to do just that. Cultivating these local relationships can also help grow a future network of school-based physical therapy professionals.

#3: Optimize Care with Contingency Staff

Finally, facilities that need school-based physical therapy providers on an ongoing basis can more readily ensure access to those professionals with the help of a contingency staffing provider. Working on an on-call basis, temp and travel therapists and assistants can help fill in for planned and unplanned absences. Or, used strategically, they can supplement actual core staff in places where permanent workers are hard to find, including PTs, PTAs, OTs, OTAs, SLPs, social workers, nurses, and others.

Pro Tip: Ensure success with this strategic checklist for contingency staffing.

Meet Your School-Based Physical Therapy Needs

Does your school need help with PT staffing? As nationwide source of dedicated physical therapy professionals, CareerStaff is here to help.

Contact us today to discover how to leverage our Joint Commission-Certified staffing solutions to benefit your school or institution. Or, request therapy staff now.