Spring has been alarming and difficult for us all. It has been even harder for our most vulnerable young people who have limited or no access to healthcare.
When schools closed, many students lost the one place where they might have had access to primary care and behavioral health providers.
This pandemic will teach us a few things: Schools provide much more than academic learning; they are essential to the economic and social functioning of the whole community. We have also increased our awareness of the shortcomings in our healthcare system and its fundamental lack of fairness.
The pandemic has laid bare inequities in our educational system as students living in poverty are the least likely to have either the devices or broadband necessary to transition to online learning and telehealth services.
Where education and healthcare meet
We represent three organizations at the intersection of education and healthcare. We focus on how schools can support the physical and mental health of students.
The professionals we represent are highly trained and rigorously credentialed. And, as the pandemic is acutely reminding us, there are too few of them.
We are all working to help schools do their best to meet students’ learning, and physical and mental health needs during this unprecedented time, and we must look toward the future. It is essential that we move beyond the usual rhetoric about how important America’s children are and take concrete actions to support them as we recover from this crisis.
Here are the facts:
- Healthy children learn and achieve more than those who aren’t. That is both common sense and a consistent research finding.
- Children from low-income and minority families are less healthy, are less likely to have a usual place of healthcare, and miss more days of school.
- Children who attend schools that provide healthcare have better educational outcomes (grades, attendance, graduation rates, etc.).
- Students are more successful when social-emotional regulation skills are a routine part of the curriculum.
There are about 100,000 U.S. public schools and about half of those are Title 1 schools predominantly serving children living in poverty. Few of these schools have a full-time school psychologist or a school-based health center, and only 39 percent of schools have full-time nurses.
Improving care in schools
Our organizations work together to significantly increase physical and behavioral healthcare in schools, including through the use of technology – telehealth.
That was the right thing to do before COVID-19 and it is even more important now. Schools will reopen with students experiencing high levels of anxiety, depression, and behavior problems. Academic learning will not take place when children are physically and emotionally exhausted.
School nurses and school psychologists are specifically trained to provide services in schools, which is critical to supporting student learning. They partner with other health professionals, such as those working in school-based health centers, who provide additional essential primary healthcare and mental health support.
These combined health support in schools are fundamental for this nation’s overall public health infrastructure. We fear many of the school districts that previously provided some level of healthcare will not have the resources to continue health services post-pandemic. Health and behavioral challenges will exponentially complicate learning challenges.
A few recommendations:
All levels of government need to allocate recovery funding to address the health needs of public school students, particularly those attending Title 1 schools. Ongoing funding for healthcare in schools after the recovery funding runs out is critical. Otherwise, we’ll be back in the same position when the next disaster strikes.
There is an extreme shortage of primary and mental healthcare providers, which is even worse in low-income and rural communities. We need to increase the pipeline by providing training grants and school loan forgiveness to professionals serving in schools, substantial funding to public colleges to expand professional preparation programs for healthcare professionals serving in public schools, and tax credits to those who provide health and mental health services in Title 1 schools.
Our response to this pandemic will define us as a society. We have the opportunity to do right by America’s children. The effort must be systemic, sustained, and supported at all levels of government. Anything less will fail our youth and their families.