Amid COVID-19 pandemic, only 39% of all Georgia schools have a full-time nurse, association says

ATLANTA — As school districts across Georgia attempt to reopen safely, Channel 2 Action News has learned that most schools are bringing students back for in-person learning without a full-time nurse on campus.

The Georgia Association of School Nurses reports that only 39% of all public schools in Georgia have a full-time licensed nurse every day.

A former Paulding County school nurse told us she resigned from her job because she felt her district failed to create a plan to keep everyone safe from the coronavirus.

“I’m sure there’s many people who are upset with my decision who disagree,” said Amy Westmoreland.

She defended her decision to quit her job in the middle of the pandemic.

“I couldn’t go into that and be with my students who love me so much, and be an advertisement that basically it’s OK. I couldn’t subscribe to that knowing that they are in danger, their families are in danger because it’s not a safe plan,” Westmoreland said.

She spent four years at Abney Elementary School, where she cared for more than 1,300 students and staff.

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She said she knew it was time to make a change after the school board released its reopening plan this summer without consulting school nurses.

“Their guidelines in terms of social distancing might not be practical in certain situations and masks were a personal choice. I mean that’s dangerous,” said Westmoreland.

In August, a student at North Paulding High School posted a now-viral photograph of a crowded hallway packed with mostly maskless classmates.

“When I saw the children not just in the hallway, but there was a picture of them in the classroom, I was horrified. I really was,” said Westmoreland.

At the time, Superintendent Brian Ott responded to the criticism in a statement: “Under the COVID-19 protocols we have adopted, class changes that look like this may happen, especially at a high school with more than 2,000 students.”

The National Association of School Nurses said there is currently a major shortage of school nurses across the country, including in Georgia where only 39% of schools employ a full-time nurse.

“One out of four schools has no school nurse. Another 35% have a part-time school nurse, meaning they cover multiple schools,” said Laurie Comb, the president of the National Association of School Nurses.

The group blames the shortage on a number of factors, including pay and funding.

According to salary.com, the average school nurse makes a little more than $45,000 per year. When districts cut budgets, school nurses are often among the first employees let go when they need to eliminate positions.

But in the middle of a pandemic, school nurses play a crucial role in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

“The school nurse helps in identifying those presumptive cases in making that nursing assessment. Then the nurse engages in contact tracing within that school,” said Combe.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends having one nurse for every 750 students.

Channel 2 checked with several Metro Atlanta school districts and found their school nurse ratios vary from district to district.

In Gwinnett County, the state’s largest school district, there is one nurse for every 5,544 students. Cobb County, the second-largest district in the state, has one nurse for every 855 students. Fulton County schools have one nurse, including clinical assistants, for every 700 students. DeKalb County schools provide one nurse for every 928 students. Paulding County schools have one nurse for every 783 students.

“It takes such a weight off your shoulders, especially after having so many dealings with the school nurse,” said Angi Sisk.

The Paulding County mother knows firsthand the importance of having a nurse at her children’s school. Her youngest son Ryder was only seven years old when he suffered a seizure at Abney Elementary School. His heart stopped on the way to the hospital, but his school nurse, Westmoreland, helped save his life.

“I don’t even like to think about it. Oh, it was, it was a lot. It was a relief she was there. I don’t know what I would’ve done had she not been there, and it was a nightmare for me. The school nurse held her composure the entire time,” said Sisk.

She said Ryder is now a healthy nine-year-old boy. But without a school nurse, Sisk believes her son’s life-threatening situation may have turned tragic.

“I know how traumatic it was for myself and the teachers involved, and without having a trained person with the ability to handle a situation like that, I don’t know where any of us would’ve been,” said Sisk.

While many school districts would like to hire more nurses, there are no federal or state laws that mandate school nurse staffing.

In May, the National Association of School Nurses sent a letter to Congress requesting funding for 10,000 school nurses for this school year, but that didn’t happen.

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