News Channel 3 has reported on the need for more teachers in schools, but there's another national shortage that health officials say is getting worse: The nursing industry has been short-staffed for years, and it's not just hospitals getting hit hard. The nursing shortage is also taking a toll on schools, including in the Coachella Valley.
The role of the school nurse is more critical than ever, with a quarter of all young children suffering from some kind of chronic illness, like asthma or diabetes. News Channel 3's Peter Daut looked at the number of registered nurses in each Valley district, and all three of them said they would like to have more.
Estella Lopez is the mother of three children who have medical conditions. She said all three depended heavily on PSUSD school nurses.
"I can't say enough about the nurses. They've gone above and beyond whatever I expected as a parent," she said. "From early elementary all the way through high school. All three of them have needed services at one point or another. From minor things to more challenging health issues."
But nationwide, the need for school nurses far outpaces the supply. Right now, 40 percent of U.S. schools do not have a full-time nurse, and 25 percent have no nurse at all. So why are so many school nurses leaving their jobs? According to the National Association of School Nurses ( https://nursejournal.org/articles/why-school-nurses-are-leaving/), reasons include: inadequate compensation, misconceptions about their role, and too much job-related stress. There are no federal or state laws regulating school nurse staffing, but the CDC's national recommendation calls for one nurse for every 750 students.
At all three Coachella Valley school districts, nurses juggle multiple schools at a time.
"They kind of rotate throughout the district depending on where the needs are at," PSUSD's Director of Health Services, Laura Dyson, said.
Dyson said the district currently has 16 school nurses for its 27 schools and more than 20,000 students. In addition, there are nine licensed vocational nurses (LVNs), and 21 medical assistants making sure every school is covered at all time. Dyson said she's satisfied with those numbers, but "if the Board came and said 'We want to give you five more nurses and put one in every school' I'm not going to turn it down. I would be happy to do that."
At DSUSD, Lead Nurse Susan Kadel said the issue is "very concerning" for her. DSUSD currently has 12 school nurses, 10 LVNs, five special education health-technicians, and four health technicians (one at each high school).
"We always advocate for more nurses, but we are currently staffed at the levels the district has approved us to be at," Kadel said. Daut asked: "What are your biggest concerns about the lack of nurses?" She replied, "So my concerns would be that we have students at school that need healthcare procedures that we don't have enough staff to take care. Now with that being said, we are currently not in that position, but that would be my fear is not having enough nurses who have the experience and knowledge that's needed to take care of some of these very sick kids at school."
The district has a large recruitment budget, but Kadel said getting qualified nurses to apply has not been easy. "How concerning is it for you that you're seeing a decrease in applicants wanting to be school nurses?" Daut asked her. She replied, "It's very concerning, because I feel like our student population is coming to us with more and more healthcare concerns. And so having qualified professionals available to those students is really a key part of their whole educational process."
At CVUSD, the district currently has six school nurses, 7 LVNs, and 21 health technicians at every school. In addition, the board recently approved hiring three more nurses, which would bring the total to nine.
Daut asked school nurse Shanna Hottinger: "Do you think there are enough nurses in your district?" She replied, "Right now, no. We're seeing more food allergies, we're seeing more diabetic students, our special education classrooms are growing every year. We're seeing more needs, and that's taking up a lot more of our time."
Meanwhile, Estella Lopez said the nation's shortage of school nurses should be a concern for everyone: "Children need to be healthy in order for them to be good students. And if we can't support them in that way, then what are we going to expect when they leave school? How can we expect them to be productive members society?"
Right now, there is an assembly bill working its way through Sacramento that would allow LVNs, and not just RNs, to become school nurses to help deal with the shortage. Meanwhile, this February, the California School Nurses Organization is holding its annual conference in Rancho Mirage, which Valley districts hope will be an opportunity to do more recruiting.
For parents who have children with health issues, it's important they communicate with the school and let the staff know about any medical concerns. Even if the school does not have a full-time registered nurse on site, there are LVNs or other health technicians who are trained to respond to an emergency. Parents should also make sure their children know who to go to in the event of a medical emergency.