A Shortage of Nurses Has Forced Oakland Educators to Act as Medical Staff. How Long Before a Tragedy Occurs?

The average school nurse goes through 1,000 hours of clinical experience to prepare him or her for the job at hand. But a shortage of nurses in the Oakland Unified School District has teachers and staff with no formal medical training acting as caregivers, and it may only be a matter of time before the unthinkable occurs.

KQED spoke to one of the teachers pulling double duty as an educator and impromptu nurse. Because the school’s RN divides her time between three separate schools, Bret Harte Middle School teacher Sayuri Sakamoto often finds herself administering medication herself. She sets alarms on her phone to remind her when it’s time for a student’s next dose.

“I have so many alarms set close to each other I'll turn one off because I think I already did that and then, 'Oh no!' It turns out that was the alarm for someone else. Sometimes schedules get way off," she told KQED. Sayuri, who is obviously doing the best she can, wasn’t even sure if she was giving her asthmatic student correct instructions for using his inhaler.

“One puff, then a deep breath and hold it — or I don't know if you hold it,” she told him. “Just do it slowly.”

If that sounds frightening to you, you’re not alone.

“You need to take this seriously,” Oakland Education Association treasurer Deirdre Snyder warned the OUSD board in September. “You’re going to be sued by some parent! It’s a travesty. I have seen seizures in my room, all kinds of problems, more and more as the years go on. You cannot pretend this isn’t happening. You need to act now.”

About 20% of the student body at Bret Harte uses special education services and many of them suffer from medical conditions. From GI feeding tubes to catheters and inhalers, Principal April Harris-Jackson estimates that school officials spend 20-30% of their time on medical issues.

And yet, Bret Harte is still better off than most. 30 schools in the district don’t even have a designated nurse, which is why Bret Harte’s RN is always so busy. “District-wide, there are over 700 students with severe allergies, more than 350 students whose asthma requires regular medication, about 200 students with seizure disorders, 50 students with diabetes and nearly 30 students with sickle cell disease,” according to KQED.

There are currently 30 school nurse positions within OUSD and, as of the start of the year, 10 were unfilled. Last year, there were 32 nurse positions with 6 vacant. In 2015, those figures were 35 and 3 respectively. Clearly, the situation is getting worse.

The nurses have not been silent. The union that represents them, the Oakland Education Association, filed a formal grievance in May. It was rejected three months later by the district for untimely filing.

District officials insist they’re working on solutions to the problem, which they say is not limited to OUSD. Nurses can make much more money in doctor’s offices and hospitals, so recruiting and maintaining qualified staff is no easy task for any school. To improve efforts, they say they’re working with the union on a number of new incentives, from bonuses to stipends for experienced nurses. But time is of the essence here. Ultimately, the stakes could be life and death.


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