Schools scramble to fill vacant nurse positions before students return
Published: August 14, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - With students returning to school on Sept. 3, the commissioners of the Health and Education departments are trying to come up with a recruitment plan for eight school nurse positions left vacant in the St. Thomas-St. John District after recent retirements and resignations.
The vacancies are hard to fill as the Education Department can offer only $32,000 to $34,000 annual salary, which is thousands of dollars below the average salary of $67,930 of a registered nurse, according to 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
At the Education Department budget hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory and acting director of Human Resources Nicole Jacobs testified about the difficulties of finding qualified nurses to staff the schools with the current salaries.
The issue has become critical for eight schools in the St. Thomas-St. John District.
A similar shortage in the St. Croix District was resolved during the last school year by the recruitment of nurses who had been laid-off from Luis Hospital, Frett-Gregory said.
According to the V.I. Code, school nurses can be either licensed practical nurses - LPNs - or registered nurses - RNs - but each LPN must be supervised by an RN. The salaries are set through collective bargaining agreements with the teachers' union, so currently, the department does not have the ability to raise them, Frett-Gregory said.
Through the V.I. Board of Nurse Licensure and the Health Department, a marketing campaign is seeking to get retired or working nurses to work part-time to provide coverage while the vacancies are being filled, Frett-Gregory said. The campaign is in addition to the one undertaken through job postings, advertisements and social media to urge nurses to apply for full-time positions.
The department is able to offer nurses $22 per hour, according to Education spokeswoman Ananta Pancham.
Should not enough nurses come forward, schools will not be prevented from opening Sept. 3, Frett-Gregory said.
"We don't have control over whether we are able to attract these nurses at this point, but we are doing everything in our power to make sure we have coverage, particularly at the high school levels," she said. "Our principals and crisis response teams will have to make decisions relative to the students if there are any illnesses."
Sen. Clifford Graham said Tuesday he had been considering amending the law requiring the supervision by an RN, but further research convinced him that it was in the best interest of students, for reasons of health and safety, to let the law stand. He said he had been working with both departments to come up with "creative ways" to provide coverage while the shortage continues.
Frett-Gregory said that the RN supervision requirement is a sound one, and she stressed that it was adopted after consultation with professional nursing organizations and that it takes into account liability issues for the school districts.
Although the department would prefer to staff its schools with registered nurses, the shortage means that nurses at both levels of credentialing will be considered, according to Frett-Gregory.
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