Liz Pray RN, former President of School Nurses of Washington, celebrates Halloween at Moses Lake School. Photo courtesy of Liz Pray.

As the new school year begins, school nurses will once again play an essential role in ensuring students stay healthy and able to learn. Though their importance is unsung, school nurses have a tremendous impact on students.

Lyndy Baron, director of health services for Kent School District, has seen this firsthand. “Most people aren’t aware of how involved school nurses are when it comes to the health of students,” Baron said. “There are a great number of chronic health conditions among students that we assess.”

School nurses do much more than hand out ice packs and bandages. They are responsible for educating and advocating for students managing chronic illnesses. They develop students’ care plans and educate staff on kids’ medical needs.

But while they’re essential, hiring and retaining qualified nurses is a challenge for school districts. “We are constantly struggling with staffing issues when it comes to school nurses,” Baron said, who’s found understaffing to be a major struggle, especially over the past couple of years.

The problem isn’t unique to Kent. School districts across the state have experienced similar difficulties, due to a broader workforce shortage and limited state funding. In recent years, the state has allotted only enough money to place fewer than one nurse per 5,000 students. But according to one University of Washington study, schools typically employ one nurse for every 1,173 students. Those schools have to make up the difference elsewhere in their budget, often by pulling from levy funds.

The 2022 Washington legislative session brought sweeping funding changes, and now allocates enough money to employ one nurse for about every 670 students. Liz Pray, former president of School Nurses of Washington, anticipates that this new legislation will help alleviate school nursing shortages. “That change in legislation allows districts with the funding to provide students with that wraparound support,” Pray said.

Along with this increased funding, improved access to nursing education is critical to adequate staffing. WGU Washington - the nonprofit, online university based in Kent - prides itself on providing online degree programs that fill key workplace needs in the state, and offers a nursing program well positioned to alleviate the school nursing shortage. WGU Washington’s Leavitt School of Health confers both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing and health care, and is designated as a center for excellence in nursing education by the National League of Nursing. And the program’s impacts are clear: WGU Washington’s nursing graduates make up a whopping 7.3% of all nurses with active licenses in the state, according to a study by the Utah Foundation.

WGU Washington uses a competency-based education model, which differs from the standard university setup. Students take classes and tests online and on their own schedule, and as soon as they demonstrate proficiency in a subject area, they’re able to advance to the next class.

“Students can go at their own pace, and really utilize their knowledge and experience to leverage their learning, which means they come out with a degree faster and at less cost to them,” said Tonya Drake, chancellor and regional vice president of WGU Washington.

WGU Washington students pay a flat rate tuition of $3,600 for six months of classes, which incentivizes quick learning. It typically takes students two and a half years to earn a bachelor’s degree from the university, according to Drake.

Their flexible educational model is also a popular choice for mid-career adults looking to advance their educations. “We do find our students are very focused and very motivated because they’ve already been in the field and are passionate about it, they just need to move forward,” Drake said.

A screenshot of Liz Pray attending a virtual meeting for increased school funding.

Liz Pray RN, former President of School Nurses of Washington, testifying in support of legislation for increased school funding. “That change in legislation allows districts with the funding to provide students with wraparound support,” she says. Photo courtesy of Liz Pray.

In 2021, more than 17% of all RN to BSN nursing school graduates across the nation came from WGU Washington and its parent organization, nationally recognized Western Governors University. Many K-12 schools require nurses to have a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s means a pay increase on top of gaining educational and leadership skills. “Individuals can still get an education but not have to leave their communities, and can continue to work in their local school districts,” Drake said.

Pray chose to advance her education at WGU Washington specifically because of their online, flexible format. As the single mother of a four-year-old, Pray opted to attend WGU Washington in 2015, earning a master’s degree in nursing education. She often took classes in the middle of the night – it was the only time that her work and personal obligations would allow.

In addition to WGU Washington’s flexible schedule, Pray credits mentorship at the school with helping her obtain her degree. At WGU Washington, each student has a mentor that guides them through the learning process and stays with them for the duration of their education. These mentors provide students with educational direction, support, and encouragement.

“The more students I talk to, they say that’s the secret to their success at WGU: the mentor, the one person they know they can always go to and will have their back and encourage them,” Drake said. “Often students attribute their success to having that person there for them.”

Though schools in Washington still face staffing challenges, WGU Washington continues to graduate highly qualified nurses into roles with local schools, and helps working school nurses further their education. “For school nurses, they have support not only from their peers in the district, but support at the state level, and there’s options out there for continuing education,” Pray said.