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Amid school nurse shortage in Wisconsin, $8.3M grant provides temporary relief

Wisconsin Association of School Nurses president says funding increase is appreciated but long term support is needed

Registered school nurse Samantha Marz.
In this May 12, 2017, photo, registered nurse Samantha Marz checks a student at Rundle elementary school in Las Vegas. John Locher/AP Photo

As Wisconsin schools grapple with a shortage of nurses, an $8.3 million grant to help with hiring and retention is seen as a start to addressing a long-term need.

Shorewood School District nurse and president of the Wisconsin Association of School Nurses, Kelly Barlow, told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show” on Friday that the ratio of nurses to students in the state varies widely. She said in some districts, nurses serve around 500 students. In others, Barlow said the ratio can reach one nurse to 4,000 students.

“The nurse-to-patient ratio, whether it’s in a hospital, in a clinic or in a school setting, needs to start being taken seriously,” Barlow said. “Because a lot of nurses are facing that stress and that burnout very quickly. And we’re seeing a lot of nurses leaving the profession.”

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Wisconsin statute doesn’t require a full-time nurse within each school building and in most cases there’s just one nurse for an entire district.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services recently announced an $8.3 million grant to help K-12 schools hire and retain school nurses and other health staff. The grant also provides funding for nurses to pursue wellness activities like gym memberships.

Barlow said the association is grateful for the increased funding, but it won’t provide a long-term solution.

“It’s a one-year grant,” Barlow said. “So, while it’s really great and the money is greatly appreciated, it’s definitely a conversation starter for the need for nurses.”

Across the country, more than 25 percent of schools did not employ a full-time nurse in 2017, according to data from the National Association of School Nurses.

Barlow said moving forward, Wisconsin lawmakers need to provide more funding for public schools and enact legislation requiring at least one full-time school nurse per district.

The shortage of nurses in Wisconsin is a long-term trend that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Wisconsin Hospital Association projects there will be a shortage of 20,000 nurses across the state by 2035. That’s due to burnout and an aging workforce.

“We see it all, you know, nationwide,” Barlow said. “There’s a shortage of nurses everywhere and safe staffing is a crucial part of that.”