Every school needs a quality nurse, but nearly 60% of U.S. school districts don’t have a full-time licensed healthcare provider. School nurses are often tasked with caring for thousands of students across multiple facilities and districts.
Danielle Kriminger recently left her job as the nursing supervisor for the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System in Clarksville, Tennessee because of low pay and terrible working conditions.
Now, as a representative for the Tennessee Association of School Nurses, she’s advocating for a new bill that would require TN schools to pay their licensed nurses the same base salary as certified teachers. Her story underscores a trend affecting schools and providers across the country.
“They’re Paid Atrociously”
Kriminger recently spoke about her decision to leave the Clarksville school system after years of serving the district.
“I pretty much had to leave because I was advocating for fair pay and respect for the nurses, and I was getting nowhere other than getting myself into trouble as an administrator for trying to do what was right for the kids and the nurses,” Kriminger told a local news outlet.
She believes the district isn’t allocating enough funds for healthcare providers, which has made it difficult to recruit and retain nurses.
“Nurses have been undervalued and underappreciated and underpaid during a pandemic. We are losing school nurses by the tons in Montgomery County, and that turnover is bad for our kids,” Kriminger said.
Forcing school nurses to do more with less can lead to stress, burnout, and moral injury when providers don’t have time to treat all the kids that need help throughout the day.
Another school nurse, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, said she is feeling the effects firsthand.
“It’s a clinic run by myself, and I feel like it’s a lot on my shoulders,” the nurse said. “I hand medications to the kids, I take care of emergency situations like allergic reactions, asthma, injuries and that sort of thing.”
The nurse in question is currently responsible for overseeing the care of over 1,200 kids. Some nurses have health office assistants, but they are rarely licensed to practice medicine.
But the job does come with perks, including benefits, a retirement plan, and three months off during the summer. According to a recent survey from the district, 65% of school nurses said the school-based calendar was their main reason for taking the job.
“I just feel like we don’t get paid enough for what we’re required to do and what is expected of us. We certainly don’t get paid enough for that, but people ask me all the time, ‘You make more than teachers do, right?’ And I’m like, ‘No, are you kidding me?’” the anonymous nurse added.
Many of the nurses have to take side gigs just to make ends meet.
“There are several nurses that work another job on the side to supplement their income – several school nurses that I know of. And it’s not because we want to; it’s because we need the money,” the nurse said.
Kriminger said she decided to work for the school system because she wanted to make a difference.
“These nurses deserve so much. They spend so many hours outside of work. They’re paid atrociously,” she said.
Schooling State Lawmakers
Kriminger and her fellow nurses recently traveled to the state capitol to lobby for a bill that would require districts to classify nurses as licensed professionals, which means they would receive the same base salary as teachers. But the bill doesn’t allocate any more funds to districts, so schools will need to make up the difference on their own. The pay raise would only go to registered nurses, not licensed practical nurses.
According to a representative from the district, the pay range for LPNs is $26,886 to $39,955 a year, not including benefits, while the pay range for RNs is $30,267 to $45,011 a year, not including benefits.
However, teachers receive a base pay rate of $41,138 a year, even if they have zero experience. If the bill were to pass, school RNs would see a $11,000/year pay increase.
During a recent state Senate hearing, state Sen. Mike Bell (R) read an email from an unnamed director of schools in Tennessee who believed the bill was a terrible idea.
“Our school system has had a nurse in every school for over a decade. We’re fortunate to have a dedicated team of nurses who serve the health needs of our students each day. We could not have kept our school doors open during the pandemic had it not been for their tremendous work,” the email read.
“However, I don’t think we should unilaterally move all nurses across the state to a teacher pay scale. Instead, we should let the market in each community determine the pay rate for nurses,” the email continued.
The bill passed the state House of Representatives with unanimous support. It passed the Senate with just one vote, 5-4.
Krimminger expressed her disappointment with the unnamed director’s opposition to the bill.
“The expressed concern in the Senate, which is so upsetting to me, is that the biggest opposition to this bill are the school systems,” Kriminger said.