Career Options: Is School Nursing Right for You?

Do you have a passion for pediatric nursing and health education? Working as a school nurse can allow you to combine these two career interests, advocate for a particularly vulnerable population, and enjoy the benefits of a daytime-only work schedule. Because school nurses work autonomously, a BSN is usually the minimum education requirement for those on this career path. A recent policy brief from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) examines the vital contributions school nurses make to the American medical and education systems and advocates for better nurse-to-student ratios.

NASN recommends school nurses be licensed RNs with a BSN degree or higher, since they often work autonomously and must possess strong leadership and critical thinking skills.

The history of school nursing begins in the early 1900s in New York City, when health authorities began to screen school children for infectious diseases. Since then, the profession has become an increasingly important – if often overlooked – component of our national health care system. School nurses serve as a vital safety net in areas where some children may have no other access to a health care professional.

The duties of a school nurse are varied, drawing on knowledge of pediatric nursing and an ability to provide health education services. School nurses assist with the management of chronic diseases (like asthma and diabetes) during school hours and are called upon to dispense medication that may include treatment for life-threatening allergies. They ensure immunizations are up-to-date, administer first aid, and screen for vision or hearing problems that might impede learning. They may also connect students to substance-abuse counseling or reproductive health services. Sometimes their impact is dramatic, as illustrated by an account of how school nurse Mary Pappas recognized an early outbreak of influenza type H1N1 and alerted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – putting the nation on notice to prepare for a pandemic.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) creates a legal obligation for schools to provide nursing services to students who need them to participate in school. This might include children with disabilities or those who rely on medical devices like a gastronomy tube or urinary catheter. Unfortunately, only half the nation’s schools have a full-time nurse on the premises, according to a recent policy brief from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The brief highlights various policy and funding strategies that might create more positions for school nurses, and improve nurse-to-student ratios. It cites a growing body of research that demonstrates the continuous presence of a school nurse can “advance the twin goals of improving health and educational outcomes.”

Educational requirements for school nurses can vary from state to state – in some places, unlicensed personnel like health aides may even assume the role of school nurse. The National Association of School Nurses (NASN) recommends, however that school nurses be licensed RNs with a BSN degree or higher, since they often work autonomously and must possess strong leadership and critical thinking skills. There’s even a professional certification program available, although very few school districts require this credential, according to the RWJF.

Some nurses may find the work hours in school nursing to be a major advantage – typically no night shifts or weekend hours, and potentially several weeks off in the summer! There may be some travel involved, however, as many districts require a single nurse to split time between several schools on a rotating schedule.

If you’re interested in pursuing work as a school nurse, the first step may be to update your education with a flexible, online RN-to-BSN degree. Here are some other resources that may help you research school nursing as a career option:

  • The NASN series of issue briefs, on a wide variety of topics ranging from privacy standards for student health records to service animals in the schools.
  • State organizations for school nurses.
  • The CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health (DASH) – a streamlined source of information for school health professionals.