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How to Become a School Nurse

Daniel Bal, MS.Ed
Updated March 24, 2023
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Explore the role of a school nurse, the steps needed for licensure and certification, and the opportunities available for those who pursue this specialized role.
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How Long to Become:
3-6 years

Degree Required:

Nationally Certified School Nurse

School nurses bridge education and health by monitoring the mental and physical welfare of the student population. Since various healthcare issues can impair a student’s ability to focus on their education, school nurses help ensure academic success.

This guide explores the educational requirements, licensure and certification prerequisites, and career outlook for school nurses.

What Is a School Nurse?

School nurses help students maintain optimal health, organize comprehensive care programs for the school/district, provide training to faculty and staff, conduct screenings, and educate parents and the community on the promotion of health-related habits. In addition, school nurses administer medication to students with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or asthma, and assist with medical needs, including catheterization or blood glucose monitoring.

The most common work settings for school nurses include public and private schools, daycare centers, colleges and universities, regional health departments, military bases, and summer camps.

With the range of responsibilities and settings, school nurses have various employment options available to them.

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Steps to Becoming a School Nurse

While specific criteria for becoming a school nurse regarding education and licensure vary by location or employer, the basic requirements remain similar.

While some employers want school nurses to obtain certifications in basic life support, Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS), and Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS), all employers require a degree in nursing, a registered nurse (RN) license, and clinical experience.

  1. 1

    Earn an ADN or BSN degree

    Prospective school nurses need to obtain either an ADN or a BSN from an accredited college or university. However, the National Association of School Nurses recommends hiring RNs with a BSN.

    Rather than enrolling in a four-year BSN program, nurses with an ADN can complete an RN-to-BSN program, which takes 1-2 years to complete. Those with a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field can enroll in an accelerated BSN program, allowing them to earn their BSN in as little as 12-18 months.

  2. 2

    Pass the NCLEX to Receive RN Licensure

    After earning an ADN or a BSN, graduates must pass the National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to become eligible for a nursing license.

    The exam requires nurses to apply their knowledge to practical medical scenarios and comprises four parts: safety and effective care environment, health promotion and maintenance, psychosocial integrity, and physiological integrity.

  3. 3

    Gain Experience in Clinical Nursing

    Most schools prefer their nurses to have 1-2 years of clinical experience prior to employment. Gaining hands-on experience as an RN helps prepare prospective nurses for a school-based role.

    To gain the necessary experience, RNs should work in settings that allow them to interact with children, focusing on the age group that interests them the most. Therefore, looking for pediatric placements as an RN provides nurses with the background needed to fulfill the role of a school nurse.

  4. 4

    Consider Becoming a Certified School Nurse

    While not required by all states/employers, pursuing certification showcases a nurse’s commitment to the role while highlighting their knowledge and experience.

    The National Board for Certified School Nurses (NBCSN) offers RNs the nationally certified school nurse (NSCN) certification. To become an NCSN, the NBCSN requires nurses to have an active RN license, a BSN or higher, 1,000 hours of clinical experience within the last three years, and a passing score on the certification exam.

    To renew a NCSN certification, applicants should submit required fees, a copy of their RN license, a passing score on the most recent certification exam, 2,000 hours of clinical practice in school nursing, and proof of employment in school health or a related field.

School Nurse Education

Becoming a school nurse typically requires a BSN; however, some employers may permit applicants to hold an ADN. Therefore, the most common educational path consists of earning a BSN, gaining clinical experience, and becoming certified. Nontraditional paths are available for those who have an ADN or a non-nursing bachelor’s degree.

ADN Degree

An ADN benefits those who want to start working in the nursing field more quickly. The shorter length also makes the program more affordable.

An associate degree is the minimum requirement to be eligible to take the NCLEX and obtain RN licensure. However, some employers prefer a BSN. If an RN with an ADN wants to pursue their BSN, they can enroll in an accelerated RN-to-BSN program.

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    Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or GED certificate; minimum 2.0 GPA

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    Program Curriculum

    The curriculum consists of microbiology, anatomy, pharmacology, nursing principles, psychology, and clinical experiences. The program mainly focuses on clinical skills and lab training.

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    Time to Complete

    Two years

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    Skills Learned

    Medical terminology, legal and ethical issues in healthcare, proper measurement of a patient’s vital signs, administration of medication, and ability to assist in various medical procedures

BSN Degree

Enrolling in a BSN program is the traditional route for those interested in becoming school nurses. Outside of the typical nursing courses, BSN programs also require students to complete general education requirements, providing them with exposure to a broader education than their ADN counterparts. These programs work best for students willing to spend the extra time earning their bachelor’s degree and who may want to continue their education in the future.

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    Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or GED certificate; minimum 2.5-3.0 GPA; science and math prerequisite courses (“C” or better); pre-entrance exams (SAT)

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    Program Curriculum

    Clinical experience, community nursing, ethics, gerontology, leadership, microbiology, nursing principles, pharmacology, physiology, psychology, women’s health, pediatrics

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    Time to Complete

    Four years

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    Skills Learned

    Critical thinking, case management, health and wellness promotion, leadership, evidence-based practice

MSN Degree

While not required, school nurses have the option of earning their master of science in nursing (MSN). There are programs that specifically offer master’s degrees with a concentration in school nursing. These programs typically offer the same MSN core curriculum with a focus on individual courses geared toward school nursing. After earning an MSN, school nurses often benefit from a higher earning potential and an increase in employment options.

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    Admission Requirements

    BSN with a minimum 3.0 GPA, active RN license, and one or more years of clinical experience

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    Program Curriculum

    Advanced courses in physiology and pathophysiology, pharmacology and therapeutics, health assessment, and research methods; concentration courses in school nursing, such as ethics, diverse learners, mental health, and special needs

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    Time to Complete

    Two years

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    Skills Learned

    CPR, health promotion; adolescent care (physical and mental health); ability to develop health plans for students, monitor physical and mental developmental disabilities, administer medication, and recognize child abuse

School Nurse Licensure and Certification

While some schools may employ licensed practical nurses (LPNs), most employers prefer RNs. LPN programs are mainly offered through community colleges or vocational schools and typically take one year to complete.

Whether becoming an LPN or an RN, nurses must pass the NCLEX to obtain licensure. However, RNs have access to more employment opportunities than LPNs do.

School nurses also have the option of certification through the NBCSN. Even though it is not required, certification strengthens the appeal of a nurse to prospective employers. To earn NBCSN certification, school nurses must have a minimum of a BSN, 1,000 clinical hours in the past three years, and a passing score on the certification exam.

The certification exam includes 200 multiple-choice questions that focus on health appraisal, health problems and nurse management, health promotion/disease prevention, special health issues, and professional issues.

Working as a School Nurse

School nurses mainly find work within public and private schools, colleges, universities, or other academic settings. They typically work Monday through Friday from around 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., which varies by work setting.

According to Payscale data from May 2022, school nurses earn an average yearly salary of $47,960. However, earnings vary by setting, location, experience, educational background, and certification. Earning an advanced degree, such as an MSN and/or certification, is typically the most effective way for school nurses to earn a higher salary.

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics does not track school nurses specifically, it projects all RN positions could increase by 9%, slightly above the national average for all other occupations.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a School Nurse

How many years does it take to become a school nurse?

Becoming a school nurse typically takes 5-6 years. This includes the four years needed to earn a bachelor’s degree and 1-2 years of clinical experience. However, there are schools that hire LPNs or RNs with an ADN. While this lessens the amount of schooling, LPNs typically need more experience to obtain employment than RNs with a BSN.

Do you have to be an RN to be a school nurse?

Yes, school nurses are required to be an RN. Although being a licensed RN is necessary, not all employers require their school nurses to hold a BSN. Therefore, it is possible for LPNs and RNs with an ADN to work as a school nurse.

Is school nursing stressful?

Being a school nurse is often considered less stressful than working in a hospital setting, as a school day is typically not as fast-paced. School nurses also benefit from a stable schedule with nights and weekends off.

What are the benefits of being a school nurse?

The benefits of being a school nurse include having a regular work schedule, personal interactions with faculty and staff, the ability to utilize a wide range of skills, and a less stressful environment compared to other fast-paced healthcare settings. The one benefit that often drives RNs to become school nurses is the chance to make a difference in the lives of the children and families in the community.

Last Reviewed: June 18, 2022

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