School nurses will be on the front lines for dealing with students and staff exposed to COVID-19 should Metro Nashville Public Schools return to in-person learning this year, but the city currently employs just 69 nurses to cover its approximately 135 schools.
Metro Nashville Public Schools and the Metro Public Health Department are actively pursuing additional funding to hire more school nurses as the district plots a return to in-person learning, a district spokesman said.
Sean Braisted with MNPS said in addition to the 69 nurses already on staff, eight are in the hiring process. The district would like to hire more.
“We realize this is a different year and MNPS in partnership with MPHD has been actively pursuing additional funding to hire more nurses so each nurse would stay in one school all day. However, those funds have not been identified as of yet,” Braisted said.
Under the current arrangement, most nurses are assigned to cover two to three schools, Braisted said. Several nurses are dedicated to Harris Hillman School, which serves students with disabilities.
“The program is procedure driven, meaning that a nurse’s daily schedule will depend upon the unique needs of students as identified by their physician,” Braisted said.
Metro Councilwoman Jennifer Gamble, who serves on the council committee advising how to spend the city’s $121 million in federal CARES Act funding, said there haven’t been discussions yet about using that money to hire more nurses. But, Gamble said she is interested in having those talks about hiring more nurses for schools. So far the committee has suggested spending the money on safety net programs such as food for those affected by the pandemic as well as housing and rent assistance.
“That’s definitely something I would be interested in learning more about and discussing,” Gamble said about hiring additional nurses.
The district directly received $26 million in CARES Act funding, which it is primarily spending on a nutrition program, personal protective equipment and teacher training.
Braisted said school nurses will be utilized as interviewers for the district and health department. Nurses will do the initial outreach to students and staffers who may have been exposed to the virus, he said. They will give quarantine guidance and find out who else the affected student or staff member has been in contact with. The cases will then be forwarded to case monitors and contact tracing team members.
Additionally, nurses will assist staff with assessing employee or student symptoms for COVID-19. When there’s no nurse on hand, other staffers have to fill that role according to the MNPS plan for returning to in-person school.
“As not all schools will have a nurse in the building at one time, school administrators will need to identify staff who can isolate students or employees that may be exhibiting symptoms,” Braisted said.
When a student or staffer tests positive, they will be asked to quarantine and those identified through contact tracing who may have interacted with the infected person will be notified and quarantined as well.
Just before school began, two staffers at Smith Springs Elementary tested positive following an in-person training session and 18 people were forced to quarantine.
School board member Sharon Gentry, who represents the North Nashville area, said the district should work to have one nurse per school regardless of the pandemic.
“The roles nurses would play in our schools during a pandemic would be important, but that would only give us sooner awareness if a student, teacher or member of the staff experienced systems while in the building,” Gentry said. “They could definitely assist in assessing the extent of the exposure, but I’m not sure this makes it safer to return to school.
“Pandemic aside, given the physical, mental and emotional health needs of many of our students here in MNPS, we really need to continue to work toward a student nurse in every school. These health needs can be prohibitive to the teaching and learning process. The increase in the number of nurses was part of a proposal put forth to the Mayor’s office and the Metro Council during Megan Barry’s tenure. The pandemic has only highlighted that need, among many others.”
MNPS began the school year with strictly virtual learning until at least Labor Day. The plan is to offer families the choice between continuing with virtual school or returning to in-person learning, but it’s unclear when that will happen.
Charter schools, which are funded mostly with tax dollars but operate autonomously, pay for their own healthcare needs and primarily do not utilize services of nurses contracted by MNPS through the health department.