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Washington schools grapple with lack of funding for nurses, psychologists and counselors

A 2020 UW study suggests there is one nurse for every 1,200 Washington students, which isn't nearly enough, experts say.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington state badly needs additional school nurses, psychologists and counselors to help students weather the pandemic, in addition to local funding and support.

That's what lawmakers and regional district leaders are saying during ongoing talks about student emotional and physical health support systems. The conversations come at a time when students, parents and teachers have voiced concerns related to masks, testing and internal support. 

"Right now, the state is spending on nine nurses for our 50,000 students in Seattle," said Jolynn Berge, the Chief Financial Officer for the Seattle School District. She says local levy support has allowed the district to hire close to sixty others, but research suggests that is still well behind recommended standards.

A 2020 University of Washington study suggests there is one school nurse for just under every 1,200 Washington students, and while that's an improvement from 20 years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends there should be one nurse per school or one for every 500 students.

The issue is even more dire when it comes to psychologists and social workers. Berge says the state only provides enough funds for 1.4 full time psychologists for the entire district and 3.3 full time social workers. 

Local levy dollars allow for more hiring, but the imbalance is significant in Seattle Public Schools, the state's largest district. 

Berge says the district is forced to make strategic decisions, noting some school nurse positions are spread among five schools.

Berge says this has been an issue for decades and is not relative to the McCleary decision.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee has already backed two different bills, including House Bill 1664, which aim to change the formula for funding social and emotional care at schools.  The House bill, which has bipartisan support, was advanced out of the Education Committee on Friday.  Rep. Alex Ybarra, (R) of Quincy, said simply "We want to help our kids."

Berge said the bills, currently, would finance an additional twenty nurses for Seattle Schools.

But still lingering is a local levy renewal. SPS is asking voters once again for help in February, with more than $1.4 billion in property taxes for programs and capital improvements. School levies have traditionally done well in Seattle, and there hasn't been tremendous push back to the proposals on the ballot that have already gone out to voters. The Seattle City Council unanimously approved a resolution on Tuesday to symbolically back the levies.

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