Temperature check on playground during COVID-19

A multi-ethnic group of children waiting in line to have their temperatures checked with an infrared forehead thermometer before being allowed to play on a playground. The teacher or nurse is an African-American woman wearing a face shield. The children are 5 to 7 years old, wearing protective face masks. This is the new normal during the COVID-19 pandemic, to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Denver Public Schools planned to use new funding to put at least a part-time nurse in every school building, but instead, 61 schools started the year last week without one. To fill the gaps, the district asked nurses to volunteer to cover multiple schools.

The lack of school nurses is more severe than usual because of the fierce competition in the job market. “What we’re dealing with now is the shortage of human resources,” said Robin Greene, the director of nursing services for Denver Public Schools. 

Denver’s shortage is an example of a longtime problem exacerbated by COVID-19. While schools around the country have more funding than usual due to federal relief dollars, they’re finding it difficult to find people for some hard-to-fill positions, such as nurses and bus drivers. In a survey by the Colorado School Finance Project earlier this month, 81 Colorado school districts listed school nurses among the most critical unfilled positions this school year.

Schools can now offer higher wages than before, but not as high as in the private sector. Greene said some of her nurses are being offered $25,000 signing bonuses to work in hospital labor and delivery wards, or $95 an hour to work in a COVID unit.

“We can’t compete with that,” Greene said. 

The average salary of a nurse in Denver Public Schools is $75,000. The district is offering a $2,000 signing bonus and was able to hire several nurses last week, Greene said. That will bring the number of schools without a nurse to 38, according to district data. To ensure each Denver school has at least a part-time nurse, the district needs to fill 19 more full-time positions, the data shows.

Most Denver schools don’t have a full-time nurse. Instead, many nurses split their time, working three days per week at one school and two days at another, for example. The district leaves school staffing decisions to individual principals, whose budgets are based on enrollment.

At the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020, only 15% of Denver schools had a nurse five days per week. Most principals said they couldn’t afford to hire a full-time nurse, Greene said.

Eight months later, in November, Denver voters passed a $32 million tax increase to benefit the schools. Of that money, $4 million was earmarked to hire more nurses. The $4 million is enough to ensure each school has a nurse at least three days per week. 

But until the district can fill those positions, schools are sharing nurses. In a letter to principals, district officials explained that nurses who work in schools that are staffed half the week or more would be asked to work at least one day a week in a school without a nurse.

There were some exceptions, Greene said. Nurses who work in high schools, which tend to be larger and serve more students, weren’t asked to leave their posts. Neither were nurses at schools with specialized programs for students with disabilities. Of 37 nurses who were asked to volunteer to work in another school, 13 said yes and will be paid a stipend, Greene said.

“We appreciate you leaning in to support one another during this time,” said the letter signed by Greene’s boss, Dr. Miranda Kogon. “I wouldn’t reach out if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.”

Greene said she hopes the volunteers only have to double up for another couple of weeks. In addition to hiring its own nurses, the district is working with outside agencies to fill open positions. In schools without a nurse on site, another staff member — usually the school secretary — is delegated to dispense medication and take care of sick kids.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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