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    Monday, May 27, 2024

    VNA to end school nursing program for four area communities in June

    The Visiting Nurse Association of Southeastern Connecticut announced Wednesday that it will end its school nursing contracts with East Lyme, Groton, New London and Waterford at the end of the school year.

    The decision comes as the VNA said it needs to focus staffing resources on its home health care program.

    The plan to discontinue the longstanding school nurse program, which employs 50 people, at the end of June was announced to staff Wednesday morning. The news was then shared with local and school officials, some who were left scrambling to figure out how they would fill the positions amid overall staffing shortages, how it would impact their budgets and how they could support their nurses.

    Lawrence + Memorial Hospital is the parent organization of the VNA, which has provided home health care, community and wellness services, and school health services since 1999.

    “Any decision to change a service that has been provided to the community and involves employees is extremely difficult,” Fiona Phelan, spokesperson for Lawrence + Memorial and Westerly hospitals, said in a statement. “We made the announcement five months prior to the contract ending to allow our Human Resources staff to support each employee in finding new positions within our health system or elsewhere. Providing this amount of time before the contract ends will also allow our communities to develop a plan for the 2024-2025 school year with as much time as possible.“

    “We are ending the contracts at this time so that the VNASC can focus on ensuring that we have the nursing resources to meet the needs of patients in home settings,” Phelan added.

    Phelan said over the next five months, HR teams will be working with the 50 nurses and nurse’s aides employed by the VNASC in the school districts, to discuss other positions at the VNASC or within the Yale New Haven Health System.

    She said VNASC also will work with the school districts throughout the transition to support the needs of administrators and students.

    State Sen. Martha Marx, D-New London, who works for the VNASC and is the president of its employee union, but who stressed she was speaking as a senator, said she has been concerned about why seven school nurse positions, including four in New London, have not been posted or filled recently. She added she can’t say she was surprised to hear the news, but she is “incredibly disappointed.” She said three of the four school systems are within her district.

    “These nurses just went through two awful years with the pandemic working in very scary situations, taking care of our children and our teachers, and we’ve been called heroes numerous times ― and this is how the heroes are being treated,“ said Marx.

    She said she also is disappointed with how the municipalities and school districts are being treated, particularly as they face an already tough budget season, with the loss of coronavirus relief funding. Amid all that, they now have to start a whole new department.

    She said the VNA’s school nurse program was a great example of consolidation of services among municipalities.

    New London will start its own program

    New London Superintendent of Schools Cynthia Ritchie said the end of the program will have a big impact on the school district. The VNA helps manage the hiring and placement of nurses, provides coverage if one of the nurses is sick, and trains staff. She said students have bonded with many of the nurses, who are an integral part of the schools.

    “They’ve been great partners,“ Ritchie said.

    School nurses help with a variety of health needs, including managing health records and making sure students are compliant with immunizations and physicals, supporting any students who are ill or who have individualized health plans or needs, managing prescriptions and medications, helping with health screenings, and providing education about viruses and health care, Ritchie explained.

    The New London school district is working to create its own positions and plans to post applications and invite the nurses to apply. The goal is for staff to be in place in time for the district’s summer programs, which begin in July, said Ritchie. She said the VNA will help with the transition.

    “The challenge is going to be ensuring that all positions can be filled,” Ritchie said. “There continues to be a challenge out there across multiple professions of staff shortages. We do not want to be in a situation where we don’t have excellent staff to support students, staff, and families so we will be recruiting right away.”

    New London Public Schools pay the VNA $1.2 million annually for eight school nurses, one substitute, and five nursing aides, according to Carrie Rivera, executive director of school and family supports for New London Public Schools.

    Ritchie said the school district is anticipating a slight cost savings with its own program as the school district will no longer be contracting with an agency and instead have employees joining the district.

    Other three towns are coming up with plans

    East Lyme Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Newton said school officials were abruptly informed at 10 a.m. Wednesday by VNA that they were not renewing district contracts for next year, nor are they providing nurses for the upcoming summer school programs.

    He said it is too early to tell the fiscal impact, but the notification would have been better received back in October, as next year’s budget was already presented to the Board of Education on Jan. 9.

    The district has five nurses and three health aides who work for the VNA, Newton said. The annual cost to the town is $630,000.

    “Our focus right now is to support our current nursing staff who have also just received this information today from what I have been told,” he said.

    Groton Superintendent Susan Austin and Groton Town Manager John Burt said town and Board of Education staff will meet next week to come up with a plan.

    “I’m hopeful that working as a team we can determine some alternate options,” said Burt. He said the budget for VNA for this year is $1.3 million.

    Austin said she also plans to meet with the superintendents of the other three communities about collaborating on a plan.

    Waterford Superintendent of Schools Thomas W. Giard III said he assumes the district will now hire its own nurses.

    Giard said Waterford pays for nursing services by the hour and spent $617,370 last year, though he anticipates this year’s bill will be higher because the school district added another nurse based on student needs. The school district has six nurses and about 3.5 full-time equivalency health aide positions.

    Giard said the decision to end the program means increased staffing for the district and benefits for the employees will impact the education budget. It also means pension costs, and the school district will need to take on the role of supervising the nurses, which the VNA currently does.

    “We will look to collaborate with area districts to see if there are efficiencies if we scale this together,” he said.

    k.drelich@theday.com

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