Minnesota school nurses are in short supply

  • Article by: EMILY JOHNS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 22, 2008 - 11:34 PM

The shortage is hurting the education of children, according to a report released Monday at a news conference in St. Paul.

There is a shortage of school nurses in Minnesota, and the Legislature needs to do its part to make sure children get adequate health care in school, according to a study released on Monday by the School Nurse Organization of Minnesota and a St. Paul think tank.

According to the study, which was based on a survey of 131 Minnesota school nurses, eight of 10 school nurses in the state think there is a shortage of school nurses and three of four believe school-nurse staffing levels are inadequate to meet the needs of some or most students.

"Our school nurses know that their numbers are not where they should be," said Matt Entenza, a former DFL legislator who now heads a St. Paul think tank called Minnesota 2020, which authored the report. "Minnesota needs to step up."

The school nurses' organization suggests putting a one-cent tax on each 12-ounce carbonated beverage sold in the state, which could raise as much as $29 million annually. The money, to be held in trust to maintain school nurses and health care programs, would allow the hiring of 600 additional school nurses.

"Whatever children are getting seen for in nurses' or doctor's offices is coming to school," said Sue Will, a career-long Minnesota school nurse and the past president of the National Association of School Nurses. She said that children's health care in Minnesota is being "relegated to secretaries."

Kids without insurance

In Minnesota, there is an average of one school nurse assigned to each 1,400 students, compared to the 1 per 750 healthy students recommended by the National Association of School Nurses. That ranks the state 30th in the nation.

That association estimates that one-quarter of children have vision problems and 17 percent are obese or overweight. In addition, according to the Children's Defense Fund of Minnesota, the report points out that 6 percent of Minnesota children didn't have health insurance in 2005 and that 29 percent had not had a preventive medical care visit in the past year.

"For some kids, the only health providers they do see is in the school," said Mary Swanson, a retired nurse from the Robbinsdale district.

For Ellen Kuenster, the parent of a child with diabetes, school nurses in the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan school district helped a scared first-grader return to school after being diagnosed with diabetes.

They helped her daughter, Megan, learn to test her blood sugar, count her carbs and take insulin shots when she needed them, Kuenster said. When Megan got an insulin pump, the school nurse attended the training with Megan's family on how to use it.

"Feeling safe is a big part of what nurses provide," said Kuenster, whose daughter is now 14. "For me, having the nurse there really made me feel like my daughter was safe."

At least one nurse

The Minnesota nurses' organization hasn't kept an exact count of school nurse numbers in recent years. According to the report, written by John Fitzgerald, schools face "crushing budget problems created by the state's refusal to provide schools with enough money to provide students with a basic education."

School nurses in Minnesota make an average of $45,097 a year, according to the survey. They must be registered nurses with a college degree. The average registered nurse makes $67,510 a year in Minnesota, according to 2007 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Minnesota law requires that every school district with more than 1,000 students has at least one school nurse. The state has 183 districts with fewer than 1,000 students, out of a total of 343.

"If you went to the doctor's office and found out you were going to be seen by the doctor's receptionist," Entenza said, "you would be deeply unhappy."

Emily Johns • 651-298-1541

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