UPPER MARLBORO — One of many school systems across the nation facing a shortage of full-time school nurses, Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) is currently dealing with 28 vacancies across its 208 public schools.
According to PGCPS Chief of Special Education and Student Services Gwendolyn Mason, the school system has 28 vacancies of full-time school nurses as of Nov. 16, but the school system has been aggressively searching to fill the void that has existed for at least five years.
A news release put out by PGCPS in June 2013 said that the school system was immediately hiring qualified Registered Nurses (RN) and Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN).
The release followed a report by the Washington Post just six months earlier that said about 10 percent of the county’s schools did not have full time a nurse at the time. Now the school system is intensifying their search strategies as the number of vacancies seem to keep growing.
“We really want to help all of our schools get nurses, and we work tirelessly each day in our recruiting efforts, and we want to make sure that when we hire staff, they are also qualified to be able to support a school environment as well,” Mason said.
In order to attract nurses to PGCPS, the school system has used strategies such as job fairs and consulting with the Prince George’s County Department of Health throughout the school year, Mason said.
Due to the shortage, RN’s may be assigned to more than one school. This is especially true in some high schools that, after assessing the medical acuity of the school, were found to need more than one nurse due to the size and their medical needs.
“We place nurses in schools with a large acuity rate, so meaning it’s based on the population of the students in the school, depending on how severe their needs are, we make sure that they have nurses before potentially a school that when you look at the student assessment you realize they don’t have as many health needs as another,” said Interim CEO Monica Goldson.
On top of having RN’s and LPN’s, they also have nurse managers who are assigned to support schools that do not have a full-time nurse on a daily basis. The nurse manager is in charge of assessing the medical acuity of a school, having a consultation with the principal, ensuring that the principal has a resource document that provides guidance in medical situations and speaks with the parents to be fully aware of children who may have more medical needs.
Additionally, PGCPS may contract out nurses from various private organizations and agencies to help fill the gaps, Goldson said.
While Prince George’s County has utilized several different strategies to compensate, the lack of nurses is not a problem that this county alone faces.
“The nursing shortage is not a state shortage, it’s a national shortage,” Mason said. “So all health institutions have been impacted by the critical need for nurses and vacancies that exist in that area. And so Prince George’s County’s challenge is a reflection of what we’re experiencing at a national level.”
According to a study done by The National Education Association, most states are currently facing a severe shortage of school nurses. Utah is the state with the least amount of nurses with 4,893 students per school nurse while Vermont is the most well-equipped with 275 students per nurse and Hawaii has no school RN’s at all.
Maryland falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum with 913 students per nurse.
Despite Prince George’s County’s attempts to fill their vacancies, neighboring counties are faring a lot better. Howard County Public Schools only has two vacancies for full-time nurses. Montgomery County Public Schools has a different system where their nurses are provided by the county health department and therefore do not have shortages.
In Anne Arundel County, their nurses are provided by the health department as well, and while nurses may be responsible for two or three elementary schools, depending on enrollment numbers, they assign at least one full-time nurse to each high school and middle school.
Charles County also does not have any schools without nurses; there was a vacancy that could not be filled with a permanent nurse, it would be assigned to an agency nurse. Charles County school nurses are also employees of the county Health Department.
While PGCPS is working daily to fill their vacancies, teachers and parents are still left with concerns.
“Every school doesn’t have a nurse, it’s crazy,” said Potomac High School PTSA President Valerie Randall. “If something really happens, who is trained in the school to handle it if it’s a serious medical emergency? Is there a protocol?”
Bianca Giosa, who teaches at Potomac High School, said it is extremely disconcerting to know that there is no nurse in her school and if an emergency really were to happen she and the other teachers would not know what to do.
“It’s heartbreaking when they ask ‘Ms. Giosa, I need to go to the nurse, is there someone here today?’ and I don’t know what to tell them,” she said. “It’s a liability, and it’s scary that there are children with allergies and chronic health concerns and you’re responsible for them, but you don’t have those resources there to keep them physically safe.”
Goldson said teachers and parents have reached out to her to express their concerns, and she makes it a point to share that information to expedite PGCPS’ search efforts.
“They do reach out and I share that information with our supervisor for nurses and our chief of HR, so we do ongoing recruitment of nurses throughout the school year,” Goldson said. “We don’t just do it when it’s right before the opening of schools.”
Utilizing nursing agencies and contractors are PGCPS’s critical efforts at this point in addition to the ongoing search for permanent nurses, Mason said.
“We will expand our search and make our needs known throughout the state of Maryland, and we will see what that generates for us,” she said. “So we will continue to move forward each and every week aggressively, work with human resources. We monitor this in our district, and we are committed to trying to address this as well as looking at the utilization of our model to help us.”