Do southern Arizona schools have enough nurses to battle delta variant?

Published: Aug. 31, 2021 at 1:37 PM MST|Updated: Aug. 31, 2021 at 1:40 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - With Delta Variant case numbers rising, schools are grappling with responding to the virus.

And school nurses play a critical role.

But are there enough nurses to ensure schools are doing the best they can to keep kids safe?

Districts have adjusted how they run their health departments over time because of chronic understaffing at schools, but now with a pandemic thrown in, it’s exacerbated the problem.

There’s no question that school nurses play a vital part in handling COVID cases, but that’s if schools have them.

Sarah Rawdin is a registered nurse, who has been working in the Sunnyside district for six years now.

Her days are longer and harder since taking on pandemic related duties.

“It’s almost feels like a second full-time job we’ve inherited along with the normal day-to-day visits, they have not slowed down,” Rawdin explained.

She wishes she had more help. And so does the Pima County Health Director, Dr. Theresa Cullen.

“What I know is that the nurses in the school districts are working as hard as they can,” Cullen said, “They’re working very long hours.’

That’s because they’re now handling and tracking COVID cases, communicating with parents, reporting to the health department, and preparing for potential outbreaks.

Rawdin sees a steady stream of students: 30 a day on average.

Nurses in some Sunnyside schools have 60 to 80 visits a day.

With the added workload and pressure, what is now the optimal staffing level in schools?

“So I don’t know the answer to what is optimal nursing. What I will tell you is we are hearing repeatedly, almost on a daily basis, that whatever is out there is not optimal, and isn’t adequate to provide the type of care that needs to be given at the school level — specifically for COVID,” Dr. Cullen said.

Sunnyside Superintendent Steve Holmes answered that same question.

“I still stand by it would be great to have a nurse in every school that’s there full time,” he said.

Experts agree there needs to be a full-time registered nurse in every school.
Experts agree there needs to be a full-time registered nurse in every school.(KOLD)

A full-time registered nurse in every school is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of School Nurses.

Holmes would at least like get there.

His district mirrors what’s happening on a national scale: not every school has a full-time nurse on staff.

Take a look this data from a 2016 workforce study by the National Association of School Nurses.

It shows nearly 40% of schools hired full-time nurses, 35% have part-time workers, and 25% of schools don’t have a nurse.

The numbers are worse in our region.

Only 10% of schools have full-time nurses, 54% part-time, and 36% have none at all.

It’s not like districts don’t want to hire more nurses.

There just isn’t enough of them out there and the pandemic is making matters worse.

Dr. Cullen said, “Not only is there this chronic understaffing of nursing, there’s also many nurses electing to sit this one out.”

So many districts, like Sunnyside, are leaning more on health assistants, but they’re not qualified to do RN level work, which includes managing chronic illnesses.

“Our health assistants, we couldn’t function without them,” said Rawlin, “They do day to day stuff, they give meds in our absence, they take care of the headaches, the stomach aches and anything that comes in that’s more complex, they’re on the phone with us. We’re also asking them with COVID to take on that additional task.”

Rawdin is a roving nurse, covering three campuses and supervises other schools in the district.

“In an ideal world, I’d be able to go directly to them and talk them through it, identifying the close contacts, but I’m not always able to do that because I’m one person,” she said.

Superintendent says nursing shortage is impacting his ability to hire more RNs.
Superintendent says nursing shortage is impacting his ability to hire more RNs.(KOLD)

Sunnyside district has health assistants in 21 of its schools, but there are only 11 nurses.

So Holmes is looking to hire roving nurses.

“Be that extra hand,” said Holmes, “We have schools with medically fragile students and we have schools that right now are really still trying to manage cases where we have a students whose test is positive and then managing contact tracing.”

TUSD currently has 8 vacancies.
TUSD currently has 8 vacancies.(KOLD)

In Tucson Unified, it has 28 nurses and 2 LPNS to cover its 88 schools.

The district is looking to fill 8 nurse vacancies.

Like Sunnyside, every school has a full-time health assistant.

“We are asking them as the public health department to do more and more. They are our eyes and ears at the school level, they are working with their teachers to help identify at our request who may be potential contacts. Now the health department decides who is a contact and who needs to quarantine,” Dr. Cullen said.

And the work continues to pile on, schools are being encouraged to participate in pooled COVID testing.

TUSD is set to start soon and Sunnyside began testing this week.

“Most of those tests are being done by the nursing and nursing staff. We are doing everything we can to help support and encourage that there be adequate staffing,” Dr. Cullen said.

All districts have health assistants in all their schools.
All districts have health assistants in all their schools.(KOLD)

Nearly all the remaining districts report they do not have full-time nurses in every school, but they have Nursing Assistants in all of them.

In the Vail district, an RN and LPN cover the entire district: 24 schools. No vacancies.

Flowing Wells district has one RN at a High School, while the rest of the schools have Health Assistants.

Half the the 22 schools in the Amphi district have a school nurse.

Nine of the 17 schools in the Marana district have full-time nurses, and four of those nurses split their time between sites.

The Nogales district reports one school has a FT Nurse position that it’s trying to fill.

The rest of the schools have a nurse assistant.

Sahuarita district has 10 nurses or health assistants covering its 9 schools.

Catalina Foothills district has 7 schools and 4 FT nurses, one at each of the two middle schools, one at the high school, and one nurse coordinator.

There’s health assistant at each school, two at the high school. No vacancies.

Tanque Verde district is the only one with a FT Nurse in all four of its schools.

Rawdin continues to plug away each day, but she’s hoping parents can help reduce the workload.

“Some of the practices we’ve seen in the past of medicating before school to deal with symptoms, a sore throat or even a fever, we’re still seeing kids come to school medicated and we could really use the help with them staying home if they’re sick,” she said.

Not all the districts have enough federal relief funds to address the nursing crisis.

TUSD and Sunnyside have received the lion’s share of ESSER dollars in Southern Arizona.

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