Nearly half of school nurses say they have felt bullied, threatened, or harassed since the beginning of the pandemic. And just as many say they have recently experienced adverse mental health symptoms.
Those are among the preliminary findings of a survey of 8,000 school nurses—representing all 50 states, tribal nations, U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia—by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in partnership with the National Association of School Nurses and the National Association of State School Nurse Consultants.
The pandemic was uniquely challenging for school nurses for a few different reasons, said Donna Mazyck, the executive director of the National Association of School Nurses, or NASN. First and foremost, they had a lot on their plates.
“School nurses had additional work to do that was tough to do: They were doing contact tracing, they were doing COVID testing, and they were making sure that the school staff and students were adhering to infectious disease protocols and mitigation strategies,” said Mazyck.
Because they were often overseeing the implementation of mitigation strategies, people frequently directed their frustrations with those policies at school nurses, said Mazyck, even though school nurses weren’t necessarily setting those policies.
In addition to that extra work and stress, Mazyck said, nurses also found their expertise—and commitment to the health and well-being of students—challenged to an extent it never has been before, which was demoralizing.
In the survey, 39 percent of nurses said they had also felt stigmatized or discriminated against and a quarter said they had received job-related threats.
What’s bad for school nurses is bad for students
And that’s likely taken a toll on school nurses’ mental health, said Mazyck.
Thirty percent reported experiencing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, in the two weeks prior to taking the survey, which was administered in March of this year. A quarter said they had felt symptoms of moderate to severe depression, and 22 percent said they had felt symptoms of anxiety.
These numbers reveal a profession rocked by the pandemic, said Mazyck, that could ultimately affect schools and students.
In the short term, school nurses might be absent more often because of their struggling mental health. In the long term, burnout could lead to school nurse shortages.
“There are options for school nurses, and if where they are working is no longer a healthy environment, they won’t stay,” said Mazyck. “School nurses tend to be one of the lower paid RN or nurse positions. All of that is part of nurses saying, ‘I don’t want to be in the school anymore,’ which would present a shortage.”
Data collected by NASN show that 25 percent of schools do not have a school nurse, and Mazyck said previous survey data from NASN show it is an aging profession, with the average nurse being in their mid-50s.
School nurses were more likely to report symptoms related to mental health problems if they worked more than 40 hours a week; took on additional COVID-19 job duties; reported stigma, discrimination, job-related threats, or harassment; or felt unappreciated, among other issues.
Burnout is not unique to school nurses, Mazyck said. It’s something that many school support staff—such as counselors, psychologists, and social workers—are dealing with.
The CDC has not yet released the full findings of the survey.