Attention, Aspen Community Magnet School and Gonzales Elementary School parents: If your child has a medical emergency in school, cross your fingers that it doesn't happen on a Tuesday or Thursday.
Starting next year, both schools will employ school nurses only three days per week in an effort to save the school district money.
Although Gonzales Elementary, with 517 students, is a bigger school, the situation at brand-new Aspen, with an enrollment of 423, is especially surprising. The school will be adding a seventh grade next year and an eighth grade the following year, pushing it into the "middle school" category. All other middle schools in the Santa Fe Public Schools district have full-time nurses because, at that level, the nurses' duties include teaching sex education, SFPS Office of Student Wellness Director Tita Gervers says.
When they're not busy with sex education or medical emergencies, SFPS school nurses give immunizations, screen for vision and hearing problems, teach kids about hygiene and attend to school staff wellness. For low-income families, school nurses may be the only health practitioners that children see.
Both Aspen and Gonzales had full-time licensed practical nurses at the start of the last school year. When those employees decided to leave their jobs, SFPS advertised for replacement LPNs for months, Gervers says, and didn't get a single applicant—despite the lingering recession.
No mystery there; the starting annual salary for an LPN at SFPS pays less than half the industry average. SFPS LPNs start at $20,384 annually, according to the most recent salary schedule. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics cites a $45,490 average LPN salary for New Mexico.
With no LPN applicants, the district was forced to hire more qualified personnel—at a higher premium. Both schools will have registered nurses next year, but to keep their cost to what the district would have paid LPNs, they will only work part-time.
The National Association of School Nurses recommends a full-time nurse at every school, spokesman Kenny Lull tells SFR.
"There's a lot of stories that have come out about students that have overdosed or died at school because there wasn't a school nurse there to administer the medications correctly," Lull says.
In one such case, a Washington state fifth-grader died during an asthma attack because school staff didn't realize she needed her EpiPen (adrenalin) injection. The part-time school nurse wasn't on site at the time.
In the absence of a school nurse, Gervers says, unlicensed staff administer medications to SFPS students.
"If there's regular medication delivered to a child, sometimes the school secretary will fill in as the nurse on a day that the nurse isn't there and pass out meds, for example," Gervers says.
That's just the type of situation NASN warns against.
"That's not safe," Lull says. "They don't have the training. We recommend a licensed person to care for your child. Having somebody that's not licensed, you're rolling the dice; you don't know what's going to happen. They don't know what they're doing."
SFPS Board of Education Member Steven Carrillo first heard from SFR, not from district leadership, about the impending cuts.
"If they're cutting back nurses, that's something we should have been made privy to," Carrillo says. "I would be very concerned if they didn't have a full-time nurse at a school [such as Aspen]."
In an email, Carrillo adds that, if he had known about the issue, he would have worked to avoid the cuts during the recent budgeting process. Consolidation of three smaller schools into Aspen last year was supposed to save the district money partly by cutting down on duplicate staff. That project cost the school district $8.5 million—enough to pay 186 nurses the state's average LPN salary.
SFPS Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez writes SFR in an email that Carrillo and the rest of the board "is not responsible for staffing, as that would be micromanagement," but adds that she agrees that the district "need[s] to investigate" and possibly increase the nurse staffing hours at Aspen and Gonzales.
In other categories, though, SFPS has increased staff. Over the past two years, the district added nine full-time equivalent positions in operations, a category that includes property management—even as it lost one full-time equivalent nurse and five school counselors.