Schools Use Travel Staff to Fill Therapist Positions for Students with Disabilities


Many K-12 schools are increasingly turning to contingent labor as they struggle to fill positions for qualified therapists of special needs children.

Schools are in a bind for two reasons. First, they face a shortage of personnel, including therapists of all types – physical, occupational, speech pathology -- as well as therapy assistants and staff nurses. The therapists help kids with autism, health impairments, and physical, emotional, learning or intellectual disabilities. Shortages of therapists are beginning to impact the entire healthcare industry, as they are one of the fastest growing occupations in a high-demand environment.

Schools also must comply with a federal mandate, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires that disabled students receive special education services and related services, including therapy. If a school does not have the appropriate therapists for its students with disabilities, it can be a big problem for a school district, due to the federal mandate.

"A school will try to find a therapist in house for the upcoming school year," said Stephen Piro, Director of Regional Accounts for Allied Therapy at AMN Healthcare. “When it can't find the right candidate, contract labor becomes a necessary option.”

How Schools Differ from Hospital Settings

Matching specific candidates for specific schools can be challenging but very rewarding for the school, therapist and students in need. The school year contract is longer than contracts in other settings, allowing the therapist to get to know an area and to get to know the students who they are helping. The therapists also have the opportunity to develop good relationships with teachers and others on the team that’s helping the children. This differs from contract labor in hospitals, outpatient clinics or skilled nursing facilities, which might offer shorter assignments that afford less familiarity with patients and colleagues. All things considered, Piro said, "I think it's an ideal opportunity to have holidays, breaks, and vacation schedules to allow more flexibility in your work/life balance while providing valuable help to children in need. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Schools must compete with hospitals, outpatient clinics and other facilities for quality therapists. But schools face the added pressure of the federal mandate to provide care for special needs students, according to Michael Dennis, Division Vice President for Therapy at AMN Healthcare. So, school officials may be highly focused on finding the qualified clinicians that they need, he said. Outside experts in recruiting and placing contingent therapists can be the answer that schools are looking for.

Contingent labor requests come from public, private, and charter schools, Piro and Dennis said. While areas such as California and Illinois requiring bilingual therapists have a greater need, the shortage affects schools across the country. One of the challenges is that, unlike hospitals, which work with hundreds of vendors and are very familiar with contingent labor, schools generally work with fewer vendors and have little experience working with contingent healthcare workforce providers.

Piro mentioned a K-12 school district in Virginia that had been looking for a full-time occupational therapist since April 2016. The job required 30 hours a week with a 45-student case load across four schools. But, the school hadn't received an applicant in weeks. Once Piro received the work order, he was able to fill the position in about a month with a therapist with 20 years' experience.

Customized Recruitment to Succeed with Schools

Another challenge for schools is that many interviews with therapists through staffing companies are held over the phone. This can make schools uneasy, since they would bringing someone sight unseen into a school setting to work with children. In response, AMN Healthcare has been using Skype to conduct virtual interviews.

"That really gives the school district an opportunity to dig in with that person face-to-face as opposed to just over the phone," Dennis said. "That's helped. It bridges the gap quite a bit."

Matching therapists to schools takes a certain skill; experts in contingent allied staffing at AMN Healthcare are proficient at finding the right person for the right school.

"It takes a different type person to work in schools," Dennis said. "We don't try to take a clinician who has worked their entire career in a nursing facility and plug them into a school-based position. We look for people who have shown some stability in their careers, who have worked in pediatrics or worked in school systems. We find the right person for the right school."

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