Could COVID-19 make a school nurse requirement in Virginia a reality?

Could COVID-19 make a school nurse requirement in Virginia a reality?
Currently, school nurses aren’t built into Virginia’s Standards of Quality, which outline the educational programs and services that each district is required to provide. (Source: Pixabay)

Legislation to mandate more nurses in Virginia’s K-12 schools has been filed — and defeated — regularly in the state’s General Assembly over the last five years.

But amid a global pandemic and continuing debate over reopening schools this fall, legislators on both sides of the aisle are hoping to rally support for the measure. Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, and Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond —both licensed nurse practitioners — will both submit bills during a special session in August that would require local school divisions to hire at least one registered nurse on every campus.

Currently, school nurses aren’t built into Virginia’s Standards of Quality, which outline the educational programs and services that each district is required to provide. Gina Bellamy, president of the Virginia Association of School Nurses, said that makes them an optional position for K-12 schools. In Virginia, the term “school nurse” also doesn’t have a standard definition, which means that districts often hire health workers with various levels of training.

“A school can hire a nursing assistant or a [licensed practical nurse] and call that person their school nurse,” Bellamy added. “‘School nurse’ is not defined by legislation, which is one of the things that VASN is trying to establish.”

Both bills would require that schools hire registered nurses, who can assess students, administer medication and coordinate plans for care. Kiggans has already prefiled legislation that would require local school boards to hire at least one full-time equivalent registered nursing position for every elementary, middle and high school.

Adams’ bill would require a registered nurse in every school building and also includes an enactment clause specifying that the law only applied to schools open for onsite learning — a nod to the growing majority of Virginia schools opting for remote learning for at least the first two months of the semester. 

It also includes a budget amendment that would require the state to fund 60 percent of all new nursing positions.

“I think that’s important because we have localities that are still trying to figure out their budgets,” Adams said. “This is just sort of an emergency measure — trying to catch schools up to speed quickly where there haven’t been registered nurses before.”

Data from the Virginia Department of Education shows that as of 2019, the state had the equivalent of 1,590 full-time nursing positions serving a total of 1,860 local schools. The department’s numbers don’t necessarily equate directly to the number of staff members — spokesman Charles Pyle said there are instances where local school divisions combine multiple positions into one full-time equivalent, such as when employees only work for part of the week. But it shows that some districts, including Richmond and Chesterfield, have fewer licensed nursing positions than they do public schools.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.