Philly school nurses exhausted as shortages and COVID-19 double their workload
As the only health worker in a building with nearly 900 students, the nurse at Girls’ High School Anne Smith is busy every day of a regular year.
With a raging pandemic, Smith is now drowning, she said.
Smith left work at 8 p.m. on Tuesday. She had been in school for over 12 hours, saw 21 students, tested 10 for COVID-19. She still had work to do when she walked through the door, but she was too exhausted to continue. And the veteran nurse – who is 21 as a school nurse and nearly 40 in the profession – sees a crisis in the Philadelphia school district.
âThey don’t have the manpower to handle the pandemic,â Smith said. âA nurse in every school cannot do it.
Smith and other nurses in the Philadelphia School District perform two tasks, they say: their regular jobs, more primarily as COVID-19 chief officers in their buildings, responsible for contact tracing, administration. from student testing, to a mountain of compliance work, and more. With new variations and spikes in cases, many nurses say they are overworked and lack essential supplies and adequate support to do their jobs.
And some schools in the city even lack a full-time nurse.
There are 17 vacant school nursing positions and seven nurses on sick leave; nurses who usually help others take on some of these roles, but 11 schools do not have full-time nurses and two share a full-time nurse. Contract nurses and substitutes fill some gaps, but not all; in other situations, nurses are taken out of their schools to administer medication in other schools, leaving their homeschooling without medical coverage.
It’s a situation Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Teachers’ Federation, calls “untenable and perilous.” The district, the union leader said, “is on the verge of a precipice, and without swift corrective action, the health of our students and staff will be even more at risk.”
The problems arise in a generally tough job market with an acute shortage of nurses. Travel nurses can order up to $ 8,000 per week at this time.
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Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said the system was hit by a wave of resignations just before the start of the school year, but still had more nurses than at any time in its history. . After deep cuts to nursing 10 years ago, under a previous administration, Hite pledged to put a full-time nurse in every school. (Pennsylvania requires schools to employ one nurse for every 1,500 students. In practice, this ratio means that buildings can be uncovered while nurses rotate between schools.)
Nurses perform “a critical function” and the district is working to reduce the shortage of school nurses, the superintendent said, adding that the district “is actively pursuing” increasing the remuneration of nurses. He did not say how much more money the nurses could receive. Under the current contract, entry-level nurses are paid $ 47,192. Nurses at the top of the scale, who have doctorates, earn $ 90,328.
Eileen Duffey-Bernt, the nurse at Palumbo Academy, a magnetic school in South Philadelphia with 1,100 students, used to have a nursing assistant one day a week. Now she is alone.
Add COVID-19 responsibilities to the already large stack of work she had, and there are some parts of her job that she just can’t do, said Duffey-Bernt, the school nurse at the year 2021 in Pennsylvania.
“I have enough experience that if I decide I’m not going to follow the letter of the law, I know exactly how far I can get away,” said Duffey-Bernt. âI’m absolutely willing to go the extra mile, but we’re being asked to do two full-time jobs. “
Positive cases of COVID-19 among staff or students require extensive contact tracing and a mountain of documentation, Duffey-Bernt said.
âNone of us are screaming that we want them to close schools; everyone would like schools to be open, âshe said. But a few weeks after the start of the school year, “people look really worn out.”
Supplies are also a problem in some schools. At Penn Alexander, a K-8 in West Philadelphia, school nurse Natanya Gornstein-Talotti has 1Â½ precious boxes of COVID-19 tests. (Each box contains 38 tests.)
âWe don’t have tests, or we share with other nurses; I have to be careful how I use my tests, âsaid Gornstein-Talotti. According to district protocol, a child only needs one symptom out of a list of 20 to be tested, but nurses simply don’t have the resources to test everyone who has a symptom, a- she declared.
Nurses are told to go to district headquarters to collect tests and other supplies, but Gornstein-Talotti can’t find time in his busy day to leave school and head downtown.
School nurses must not only maintain their nursing license, but also obtain and pay for additional training to achieve the educational certification that the state requires of them.
But “the district doesn’t treat us like we are heroes right now,” Gornstein-Talotti said. “We’ve been pretty neglected.”
Chris Yancer, the school nurse at Mastbaum High, is concerned about the lack of continuity of care in schools with vacant positions. And despite 24 years as a school nurse, she feels overwhelmed.
âMy concern is that if I’m feeling the pressure, I can’t imagine what our new nurses are feeling,â Yancer said. “There just aren’t enough hours in the day to give everyone what they need.”
It’s lonely, high-stakes work, nurses at the school said. And some have had enough.
With the demand for nurses at an all time high, many Philadelphia school nurses are making per diems to supplement their incomes.
âWorking in a hospital during COVID is physically draining and emotionally taxing, but I know I can look left and right and know that there is someone who is in the same boat who will support me,â said a school nurse, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. âAt school, I feel like people treat us like bottomless pits that can be continuously emptied but never filled. I am actively seeking to leave.