School-nurse staffing poses challenge for Catholic schools - Catholic Courier

School-nurse staffing poses challenge for Catholic schools

When a child has a medical emergency at Seton Catholic School, a school nurse provides initial first-aid treatment, determines whether an ambulance is needed, keeps the child calm and notifies family members, according to Mary Kate Koecheler, principal of the Brighton school.

At St. Michael School in Penn Yan, meanwhile, it’s the school secretary who typically provides first aid to injured students, according to Principal Debra Marvin. Teachers and staff also have been trained to monitor the diet and glucose levels of one student who is visited at school each day by a nurse who administers the child’s insulin.

“They also come to the school if we need more assistance than basic first aid,” Marvin said.

Access to a school nurse varies greatly among Catholic schools in the Diocese of Rochester. St. Mary Our Mother School in Horseheads, for example, has a nurse on site one day a week while St. Francis-St. Stephen School in Geneva has a nurse in the building for one hour each day, and Holy Cross School in Rochester has a full-time nurse.

Catholic conference: So-called equitable nursing coverage provided by school districts is unfair

These disparities are found at Catholic schools throughout New York state, because when it comes to filling school-nurse positions, Catholic schools in this state are at the mercy of the public districts in which they’re located, according to James Cultrara, the New York State Catholic Conference’s director for education.

“This has been an issue that has plagued us for years, and we’re not getting any relief,” Cultrara said.

Section 901 of New York’s State Education Law requires public school districts to provide health services to their students. Section 912 of the same law also requires each school district to provide students attending religious and independent schools with “all of the same health and welfare services” available to students in the district’s own schools, so long as the religious and independent schools’ administrators request those services, Cultrara said. But school districts oftentimes provide part-time nursing coverage and consider that sufficient, he said.

Catholic schools have objected to this practice — with little success — by appealing to the state commissioner of education, he said.

“The commissioners over the years have determined that section 912, where it says ‘all the same,’ comes down to meaning equitable, even though the statute doesn’t say equitable. It says ‘the same,’” Cultrara said.

Enrollment ratios are used to determine the level of nursing coverage a district is required to provide to a religious or independent school. For example, a public district that provides a full-time nurse for a district school with 1,000 students would be required to provide one-fifth as much nursing coverage to a Catholic school with an enrollment of 200 students, Cultrara said. This practice is unfair and unacceptable, he said.

“Generally speaking, the school districts employ full-time nurses. Those nurses are available to attend to accidents and emergencies, whereas … we either have to schedule our accidents and emergencies or, depending on the severity, call 911. … That is not the same health coverage,” Cultrara said.

He acknowledged that exceptions sometimes are made for schools that have students with serious health concerns and require frequent treatment or monitoring.

Nursing shortage

Local school districts have told Catholic-school administrators they are struggling to find enough nurses to staff their own buildings, according to Frank Arvizzigno, superintendent of the Diocese of Rochester’s Catholic schools.

In recent years, a nationwide nursing shortage has affected schools as well as hospitals and other health-care facilities, according to Cheryl Blake, immediate past chair of the National Association of School Nurses’ special interest group on private, independent and parochial school nurse leaders.

A 2022 study by the American Hospital Association anticipated the loss of 500,000 nurses nationwide that year, many due to retirement. Others are leaving the profession due to burnout in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, Blake said, and school nurses in particular — who often were charged with enforcing masking and COVID-testing requirements — have been bullied.

“What exacerbates it even more is that hospital nurses typically earn about $20,000 more than a school nurse. We’ve seen an exodus of nurses going back into the hospital because they can earn a whole lot more,” she added.

Part-time nursing positions may be particularly difficult to fill as they often do not provide medical, dental or retirement benefits, Blake said.

Proposed legislation addresses nursing concerns, Catholic conference considers litigation

Blake and Cultrara agree that there’s no simple answer to the question of how to provide fair nursing coverage for all students. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association of School Nurses both support proposed federal legislation — the One School One Nurse Act of 2023 — that would require every elementary and secondary school to have at least one registered nurse on staff and provide grant funding to recruit and retain school nurses, Blake said. But this legislation would not apply to religious, independent and private schools, she noted.

New York’s bishops have long advocated for the state’s education law to be amended to explicitly require public districts to provide full-time nurses to religious and independent schools, Cultrara said. The bishops also support legislation that would encourage more individuals to go into nursing, but while several such bills have been proposed, their passage seems unlikely due to the hefty associated costs, he said.

Cultrara added that the state Catholic conference is considering suing the state Department of Education for violating Section 912 of the State Education Law.

“We disagree with having a nurse available in the public school to attend to emergencies and accidents, and not having one in the Catholic school. … If we were to litigate and win, that could force school districts to, in fact, levy local taxes to hire a full-time nurse for our schools,” he said.

Local schools hire nurses, recruit volunteers to ensure students’ safety

In the meantime, Arvizzigno said he hopes local public school districts will continue to work with Catholic-school leaders to find creative solutions to ensure that Catholic schools have regular access to trained nurses. Several local schools also have taken their own steps to ensure students’ health and safety.

At St. Pius Tenth School in Chili, a retired nurse volunteers at the school on the two days a week not covered by the part-time nurse provided by the Gates Chili Central School District, noted Principal Maria Cahill. And at Seton, the school’s health office is staffed every day — twice a week by a nurse provided by the Brighton Central School District and three days by a nurse hired by Seton.

“We believe very strongly in needing a nurse here all five days of the week, so we have a nurse for those other three days that we pay for out of our own budget,” Koecheler said.

Tags: Catholic Schools, NY Catholics
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