By Larkin Callaghan
Thanks to my elementary school nurse, I finished school on time. That’s right: In the 5th grade, I strained during a school vision test to read the little letters I saw projected on a screen 10 feet away. Asking in bewilderment if I wanted to try again, the screener asked, “How have you even been seeing the chalkboard?” Off to the nurse I went to get my prescription recorded for her records, and glasses were ordered that day.
In the context of today’s school health services, my experience seems paradisiacal. That’s because today, public school health services are conspicuously absent. As a youngster, I never gave much thought to how the presence of that nurse or vision screener and her assessment impacted my uninterrupted performance in school. Given that we know academic success and wellbeing are inextricably linked, the low number of school-based health centers and staff is particularly troubling. Increasing the number of centers and health professionals—nurses and school psychologists in particular—can greatly improve child health, as well as academic performance.
The Affordable Care Act appropriated $200 million for the explicit purpose of building and expanding school health centers, a number that still seems low considering that only 45 percent of public schools have a full-time nurse, and 30 percent can only count on a nurse part time. A quarter of public schools have no nurse at all. A mere 12 states have met the Department of Health and Human Service’s desired ratio of one nurse for every 750 students.
The cost of a school nurse—the average salary hovers around $43,000 a year—and of equipping a center with supplies varies from state to state, and even county to county. If the ACA money were used solely on nurses, it would only allow 4,651 nurses to enter the field. After covering the staffing of public schools in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago we would be left with funding for a little over 1,000 full salaries—without even beginning to consider the cost of dedicating and maintaining a physical space in a school and procuring supplies.
Historically, school-based health centers have done everything from dispensing Band-Aids and cleaning cuts to providing immunizations, dispensing medications, and coming to the aid of children suffering from seizures. These centers have also offered preventive care and treatment for children who may not otherwise have access to health insurance. They can have a significant impact on what is known as the “achievement gap,” the major race and socioeconomic disparities in academic success that begin to emerge as early as elementary school, by working to address the health issues that have the greatest impact on a child’s performance in school.
An emerging body of research points to the ways in which these disparities could be drastically reduced, and preventive care restored, with the return of robust care being offered in-house at our public schools.
The Journal of School Health devoted an entire issue to research by Charles Basch, Ph.D., of Teachers College, Columbia University, that highlights health issues with historically high socioeconomic, racial, and urban health disparities, how they contribute to poorer academic outcomes for minority youth, and how school-based health care can mitigate them. Children of color currently make up 85 percent (PDF) of New York City’s public school system, one of the most racially segregated in the nation, and Basch’s research outlines seven health problems that can be easily addressed by a school nurse within these segregated environments and help reduce the disparities.
The least contentious health issues addressed are asthma, vision and nutrition. The prevalence of asthma among black children in the United States is 12.8 percent versus 8.8 percent for white children, and the annual estimate of asthma attacks among black children is 8.4 percent compared to 5.8 percent among white youth. Poorly controlled asthma can impact cognition and plays a significant role in absenteeism; the overuse of emergency departments and underuse of effective medications among minority youth are a good measure of how the affliction is having greater negative consequences for children of color.
As someone who needed glasses fairly young, it’s unsurprising that more than a fifth of youth have vision problems. A national sample of nearly 50,000 children showed those from low-income families were less likely to have vision diagnoses than high-income children. Once diagnosed, black children have less intensive and sparser care than whites. And everyone knows that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but one study showed that among 9-year-old girls over a three-day period, 77 percent of white children had breakfast every day while only 57 percent of black children did. Of children qualifying for reduced or free lunch in their public schools, less than half participated in schools’ free breakfast programs for which they were eligible. Nutrition influences brain activity, which results in significant impacts on children’s learning and cognition.
There are uncomplicated solutions to these problems. Asthma screenings are quick, and medicines are immediately effective. Dealing with symptoms and management of asthma at school can decrease both absences and severe attacks. Vision screening is widespread in schools, but the coordination of follow-up care by a school health professional is essential for children in need of eye-care interventions and is the biggest culprit behind current disparities. Participation in universal school-breakfast programs has shown reductions in absences, and allowing children to eat breakfast in their classrooms as opposed to the cafeteria has resulted in increases in the programs. School-based health centers can oversee the distribution of healthy meals for children in need of these programs, with the added perk of highlighting which students may benefit from other school-health services.
Attention deficit and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADD and ADHD) have received much attention in recent years. ADD/HD affects sensory perception, absenteeism, cognition, and even organizational and planning skills. Urban youth of color are more likely to be affected by and less likely to receive a correct diagnosis and effective medication. Screenings by school psychologists and learning specialists can aid in the diagnosis of ADD and ADHD and the accessing of medications, as well as help students with effective behavioral modifications. School nurses are in a position to manage the medications by dispensing them to students at school if necessary, and ensuring that the timing and dosage are accurate.
Most contentious of the issues tackled by Basch in his call to arms is teen pregnancy. Among 15- to 17-year old girls, the pregnancy rate among blacks is more than three times higher than whites, and the rate among Hispanic teens is more than four times as high. Teen mothers on average have two fewer years of schooling. They are 10-12 percent less likely to finish high school, and have 14-29 percent lower odds of attending college. The implementation of evidence-based, comprehensive sex education is the best way to reduce the teen pregnancy disparity. This requires the overhaul of the popular abstinence-only education programs, which have been shown to leave students ill-equipped to make the healthiest decisions. Given the fraught political environment, comprehensive sex education is not widespread, and school nurses can be an essential resource for students beginning to engage in sexual activity. From dispensing condoms to connecting students to community resources for treatment who may disclose concerns about both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, and being the person on campus who can answer questions privately about reproductive health, nurses can address issues that are not part of classroom learning.
There are signs of hope, as Basch was asked by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to outline national health strategies in schools, but the now well-known public funding cuts to both healthcare and education continue to threaten the health status and educational attainment of youth in America’s public schools.
The disparities can be shocking. But these specific health issues are fairly straightforward, do not require specialists, and can be tackled easily within a school environment by nurses, resulting in the improvement of both kids’ public health and academic achievement—as long as they are given the finances and support to do so. As a front line of defense against immediate health emergencies and the prevention and maintenance of chronic diseases that develop in elementary school years, ensuring the presence of fully staffed, funded, and stable school-based health centers is essential—especially for our children already victim to a shameful lack of resources.
Edited by Jordan Lite. Additional research by Arti Virkud.
This article originally appeared on the2x2project.org, an online publication sponsored by the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University. 2×2 aims to inform the health conversation through timely and effective communication of emerging public health science.