Are school nurse jobs in jeopardy? As pandemic relief expires, some are worried

School nurses are increasingly anxious their workloads might expand – or their jobs may disappear entirely – when federal pandemic relief funds for U.S. schools expire by the end of the year.

School districts have until the end of September to allocate what remains of the billions of dollars in coronavirus relief Congress sent their way in separate tranches during the pandemic, the Education Department has said.

That deadline has prompted warnings from education advocates about looming budget shortfalls nationwide. The imminent fiscal cliff could have “severe implications” for students, including teacher layoffs and school closures, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Though U.S. schools have long faced a shortage of nurses, the disparity eased slightly when the federal government approved Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funding, which many districts used to hire nurses. With access to those federal coffers closing, some school leaders are scrambling to find the money elsewhere to retain nurses. Districts in Oregon and Oklahoma have reportedly considered layoffs. At a city budget hearing last week, New York City education department officials warned that roughly $65 million in federal funding for about 400 school nurses is set to expire.

“We’re grateful to the stimulus funding that has allowed us to ensure every school has a school nurse on site,” Jenna Lyle, a spokesperson for NYC public schools, said in a statement to USA TODAY. “And we will continue to advocate for and prioritize this need through the budget process.”

Kate King, a school nurse in Ohio and the president of the National Association of School Nurses, said that while it’s tough to pin down how many nurse salaries come from pandemic relief money, she has been hearing from nurses in districts across the country who are worried about what’s to come.

“When districts started hiring during the pandemic, what they realized is how valuable school nurses are in a school building,” she said. “Unfortunately, when they hired nurses with ESSER funds, there was no thought of sustainability in those positions.”

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Pandemic eased the school nurse shortage

About two-thirds of public schools have a full-time nurse, according to the latest survey data from the school nurses’ association. While that number is higher than some estimates of pre-pandemic staffing, it’s still below national standards. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics officially recommended schools have at least one full-time nurse.

“Every school should have a full-time nurse,” said Sarah Part, a senior policy analyst with the nonprofit group Advocates for Children of New York. “That was true before the pandemic. It’s still true.” Part's group has urged New York City Mayor Eric Adams to find money elsewhere in the budget to keep the nurses being paid with federal dollars.

The fact that federal funding is running out doesn't mean students' health needs have lessened. If anything, they have expanded in recent years, said Robin Cogan, who has worked as a New Jersey school nurse for more than two decades.

"It is very disheartening for school nurses who have spent years and years devoted to school health to be losing their jobs in this way," Cogan said. "It is so preventable.”

In rural areas, public school districts are disproportionately underresourced – only about 56% employ full-time nurses, compared to approximately 70% of urban schools, the school nurses' association says. Roughly 6% of schools nationwide don’t have any nurses on campus.

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Chronic absenteeism and school nurses

The threat to school nursing jobs comes as chronic absenteeism – a problem nurses may be uniquely positioned to address – continues to grip American schools.

Research shows the number of students who miss at least 10% of the school year jumped by about 6.5 million between the 2018-19 and 2021-22 school years. Last week, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona acknowledged the problem and said the Biden administration is working on new resources to reduce absences.

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A study published last year in The Journal of School Nursing suggests school nurses often play a crucial role in keeping students at school. According to the study, students who routinely miss part of the school day often interact regularly with their nurse. Those close relationships give nurses the opportunity to intervene and curb absenteeism before it becomes chronic.

Leaders in districts like New York City should keep those findings in mind when they consider budget cuts, said Knoo Lee, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri’s nursing school and one of the authors of the research.

“School nurses can really help out,” he said. “A lot of schools are just missing that.”

Zachary Schermele covers education and breaking news for USA TODAY. You can reach him by email at Follow him on X at @ZachSchermele.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: School nurses are worried about their jobs as pandemic funding expires