During a normal year, school nurse Kim Lowe would spend much of her day driving to and from one of the eight schools she serves in the Alpine School District. 

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Caption: KUTV

“I have about 6,000 students,” Lowe told Beyond The Books in 2018. Fast forward to today, as parents, teachers and students nervously prepare for possibly returning to school in the fall. 

They will be faced with concerns about contracting coronavirus, and doing so in a state that ranks 49th in the country for nurses in schools. 

Utah has one nurse for every 4,893 students. Compare that to Vermont, which has one nurse for every 275 students. 

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Now, with coronavirus cases increasing across the country, Utah’s school nursing crisis will be magnified. 

When we spoke to Lowe before the coronavirus outbreak (two years ago), she was already concerned that teachers were being asked to shoulder the burden of teaching and dealing with student health.

“We do our best to train the teachers and the aides,” Lowe said, “but they don’t have medical degrees, they don’t have the assessment skills that are necessary.”

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State Rep. Steve Eliason (R-Sandy) tried to address the nursing shortage in last year’s legislative session. He passed a two-part bill that poured $27 million into schools to give them the choice of hiring nurses, social workers or counselors. 

Lawmakers worry about nurse shortage at Utah schools

The first $17 million dollars went into effect last year. However, not knowing the COVID-19 crisis was brewing, not every school district used that money for nurses — some hired mental health professionals instead. 

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Beyond The Books has learned Utah schools only hired 33 full-time nurses. That did, however, increase the number of RNs in schools from 170 to 203. 

Earlier this month, schools got an influx of new cash to hire more nurses, as the second part of Eliason’s bill kicked in, spreading as much as $10 million dollars to school districts across the state. 

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Although we do not yet know how many nurses schools will hire, Eliason is certain, in the wake of coronavirus concerns, nurses will be at the top of the list.

“I think there will be a disproportionate share of schools hiring new nurses,” he said. 

Dr. Bill Cosgrove, a physician and longtime advocate for more nurses in school, says he is glad there will be more RNs in Utah schools, but he says it is not enough, and the burden of dealing with a coronavirus crisis in the schools will likely fall squarely on the shoulders of teachers.

“Now we get to the COVID-19 crisis, and now the teacher has a whole new set of responsibilities about protecting not just the school community, but the overall community from a contagious illness,” Cosgrove said. 

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