Montgomery Co. leaders sound the alarm over school nursing shortage

Two Montgomery County Council committees are recommending the creation of six new school nurse positions in hopes of alleviating an ongoing shortage in Maryland’s largest school system.

The Education and Culture Committee and the Health and Human Services Committee met for a joint session Monday, months after they had both asked County Executive Marc Elrich to allocate enough money in next year’s budget to hire 12 new school nurses.

The county’s budget for 2020 did not end up including the money for those nurses, but council members say Monday’s recommendation carries an additional sense of urgency.

Council Member Craig Rice said the newest recommendation is a sign the nursing shortage has reached “emergency status.”

“We understand how it presents a challenge to the executive branch from a budgeting perspective,” Rice said. “If we did not feel if this was of the emergency nature that it is, we wouldn’t do this. We don’t do this lightly.”

Montgomery County has a nurse-to-student ratio of 1 to 1,600 — far higher than neighboring counties, including Prince George’s County, which has the second-highest enrollment of all Maryland public school systems but a nurse-to-student ratio of 1 to 693.

During Monday’s session, council members raised concerns that the nursing shortage is leading to students not getting the care they deserve.

“We hear about the challenges of things falling through the cracks because nurses can’t be in three places at once,” Rice said. “These are the kinds of continuous challenges that really provide some great concern for us.”

Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, told the committees that school nurses are paramount in teaching students about health care, and said nurses can model healthy living habits.

“If younger people have a positive experience within the health care realm, they’re more likely to utilize that space as they get they’re older and trust that experience to be able to come in and take advantage of those resources,” Gayles said.

Gayles speculated that if the county does add the six proposed new nursing positions, at least four of them would end up in high schools. Between the more than 200 schools in Montgomery County, there are fewer than 100 nurses.

“There is no catching up,” Rice said. “At this point, we’re trying to tread water.”

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