Newton Public Health Nurses to Picket Outside City Hall on July 1 from 4-6 to Protest School Committee’s Failure to Maintain Pay Equity With Teachers at a Time When School Nurses are the Key to Safe Reopening of Schools for Students and Staff this Fall
For five years the city has recognized the value of school health by providing nurses, who
have the same education and certification requirements as teachers, with pay parity, but are now reneging on that commitment when it matters most
Despite going a year without a contract, when the pandemic hit, school nurses stepped up: providing contract tracing for the community, reaching out to educate students and parents, and working with parents in need to ensure they have access to food and other resources
Newton, MA – In the wake of a recent decision by the City of Newton to renege on its longstanding commitment to ensure school nurses pay parity with teachers in the system, the 28 school nurses plan to conduct informational picketing outside Newton City Hall on Wednesday, July 1, from 4 – 6 p.m. The nurses are protesting what they see as a blatant show of disrespect at a time when the role and value of school nurses has never been more essential to the health and safety of the students and the community.
“As nurses, we fought for 25 years to finally achieve what we deserved all along, which was to be treated and compensated like all the other professionals in our school system, which finally occurred in 2014 when we negotiated a pay scale on par with teachers, social workers, and other valued professionals in the system,” said Sue Riley, RN, a longtime nurse in the Oak Hill Middle School, and chair of the nurses local bargaining unit the Massachusetts Nurses Association. “But now Mayor Fuller is proposing that we accept a contract that devalues our pay scale and reneges on the commitment this city made to its nurses and the students we care for. And the fact that they are doing this in the midst of this pandemic, when our role and value has never been more apparent, is nothing short of insulting.”
Newton, along with almost 90% of all school districts in Massachusetts, has paid its nurses the same as other educators. Nurses, like teachers, are required by state law to have the same education, certification, and licensure requirements from Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Additionally, nurses must obtain and maintain their professional nursing license from the Board of Registration in Nursing (BORN) as well.
The Newton Public Health department employs 28 school nurses providing comprehensive school health services to 12,641 students, as well as all staff in 22 schools: including 15 elementary schools (K-5), four middle schools (6-8th grade), two high schools (9 – 12) and two alternative high school programs and an integrated preschool program serving 184 students. Over 70 different languages are spoken within the student/parent population. The Newton school district belongs to the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO), a state-funded voluntary educational desegregation program enrolling over 400 Boston students in Newton schools. Newton is also a Member of the Education Collaborative for Greater Boston (EDCO), which includes 17 urban and suburban communities.
In a typical school year, Riley explained that school nurses keep children and adolescents safe and ready to learn. “Studies show that a healthy child is a better learner and that without the care and expertise of school nurses, many of our children could not attend school,” said Riley.
“We administer and monitor a host of medications to students every day, and we also provide health education to students to try and teach them healthy lifestyles, as well as how to manage their illnesses. And of course, the school nurse is on-hand to provide acute and episodic emergency care should your child suffer a serious injury or unexpected illness on school grounds.
Our school children faces issues of diabetes, asthma, epilepsy, cancer, heart conditions, life threatening allergies, as well as psychological disorders, congenital issues, muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis, all requiring and demanding more nursing care to stay in school,” Riley explained.
School Nurses Respond to Pandemic
Despite the fact that the nurses have gone over a year without a contract to maintain parity, the full value of school nurses was made clear when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Massachusetts and the schools were closed.
“Our nurses did not stay home and take time off, instead we swung into action to protect our students and our community,” Riley said.
The nurses made sure that students belongings were returned to them, and the nurses set up office hours each week to communicate with parents and children, particularly those less fortunate who had food insecurities and other issues that compromised their health and safety. Nurses participated in zoom classes to educate students and parents about the virus and how to protect themselves. They delivered food to families, and one nurse set up a cooking class for students to keep them engaged. The nurses also helped the broader community by supporting efforts for testing and contact tracing to monitor the spread of the virus in the community and to counsel residents on how address their health needs.
“I am so proud of how our members have responded to this very unique situation, but this is what public health nurses do, this is just part of our DNA, we care for the community,” Riley added.
In the coming months, as the schools prepare to plan to reopen in the fall, and as nurses and other public health experts worry about a potential second wave of the pandemic, the role of school nurses will take on primary importance in this process, providing guidance on how to open schools safely, educating staff and parents on the process, and then monitoring the health and safety of students and all staff who re-enter the schools to prevent community spread.
“It will be our job to ensure that students and staff understand how to follow safety protocols, how to wear a mask and socially distance. We also anticipate confronting a number of mental health issues that this crisis will exacerbate, and to ensure that students have the support they need to cope with this unique situation,” Riley explained. “If schools want to open safety, our school nurses will be at the center of that process,” Riley said.
According to recent research, the investment school health the nurses are seeking will pay for itself in the benefits it provides. A 2015 study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, which focused on the impact of school nurses in Massachusetts, found that having full time registered nurses in schools more than paid for itself by averting medical costs and lost work for parents and teachers. The authors calculated that every dollar invested in the school nurse program saved $2.20 overall.
As of June 30, the Newton Public Health nurses have been without a contract for a year. In the meantime, the teachers have settled a new contract that provides them with pay increases over three four years, while the City made a proposal last in November that would devalue the nurses pay scale and no longer allow the nurses pay to keep pace with their professional colleagues.
“This is not the time to be devaluing our role and we only hope this picket draws attention to the need for the city to treat us with the respect we deserve,” Riley concluded.