Prince George’s County has a shortage of school nurses

December 29, 2012

Caleb Spruill, an honor roll student who suffers from asthma and an autoimmune deficiency, didn’t go to school for a week in December.

It wasn’t because the second-grader was sick.

Caleb stayed home because there was no one at his school to administer his medicine properly, his mother, Melody, said.

The Prince George’s County school system has been aggressively trying to recruit more school nurses to address a staffing shortage that has existed since last year. The county does not have a permanent, full-time school nurse assigned to roughly 10 percent of its schools.

Karen Bates, supervisor of the office of health services, said the county has lost nurses through attrition, retirements and to hospitals and other medical facilities that can offer higher salaries.

But, Bates said, the school system has managed to cut its vacancies in half, hiring about 20 school nurses in the past three months.

Even as the county hires new nurses, it is weighing whether registered nurses and licensed practical nurses are the only ones who should staff school nurse offices.

“The school system is currently evaluating its current nursing structure,” said Briant Coleman, a spokesman for the school system.

Coleman said some school systems hire nurse’s aides who are assigned to individual schools and are supervised by a registered nurse, who is in charge of a region that includes several schools.

“That would tackle the issue of compensation and the competitive market that we’re in,” Coleman said.

Spruill, who recently transferred her son to Kingsford Elementary School in Mitchellville, said she has become frustrated with the system’s inability to provide the services her son needs to get an education.

“He wanted to go to school, but because there is no nurse there, I’m not comfortable with it,” she said. “Am I supposed to send him to school and he goes into anaphylactic shock because he doesn’t have a nurse?”

Bates said various school systems assign nurses based on the needs of the student population, which is the policy that Prince George’s follows. Some schools receive registered nurses; others have licensed practical nurses, she said.

“We are a large county with over 200 schools, and the medical needs of our children are very complex,” Bates said.

To temporarily address the shortage, Bates said that officials might ask some nurses assigned to one school to go to another to treat a student. The system also has filled holes with substitute nurses, bringing back nurses who worked for the system in the past.

“We do what we need to address the student’s needs,” Bates said.

Spruill said she learned in a letter from the school system in December that the “goal is to have a school nurse in place mid-January.” Though the office of health services has a nurse manager available daily to provide direction to school staff, and a nurse at a nearby school to provide coverage, Spruill said she believes it isn’t enough.

“We can do better,” Spruill said. “We’re talking about children’s lives.”

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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