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WV school officials focus on students’ health

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Does a student's academic progress depend on his or her overall health?

Some school officials say it does, which is why they want to marry health and education in a comprehensive and community approach.

One aspect of students' health comes from school nurses. Rebecca King, community schools coordinator, said there are 265 school nurses for 282,000 children.

"And if you look at it, 23 percent of those kids have some sort of medical provider or school nurse during the day," she said. "They may have medication or maybe an asthma inhaler. … They are running around in rural areas from Point A to Point B to manage those 23 percent who need daily care. And they juggle health prevention with that."

Then there's another aspect — school based health clinics. Focusing on prevention, school based health clinics have many roles such as treating acute care, diagnosing ailments and treating chronic diseases.

Although these roles are the most common, school based health clinics also may offer behavioral health care, oral/dental health care and they work with improving the school environment, school meals, physical education, staff wellness and parent and community partnerships.

"They are set up in schools to provide medical services to the students based on that county's needs," said Paula Fields, coordinator of community schools.

"It eliminates a lot of barriers because often adolescents are the least likely to access health care," she added. "School centers can help them access it and utilize it as well."

Fields said many now understand the role of school based health centers but there always are questions when one comes into the community.

"They work with the primary care provider and do not replace them," Fields said. "So if they have a pediatrician, they work with them. They don't duplicate or replace them. If they don't have a primary care provider, they help them find one or access one."

Fields said school based health centers may decrease another problem — absenteeism. Health centers and school nurses on site will help with matters including managing asthma and also treat acute situations. Fields said health centers also can coordinate with local health departments to provide things like flu vaccinations. 

School based health centers and other efforts are helping pave the way for coordinated health through the community.

"No single entity can or should be expected to address all educational and health issues among youth," Fields said. "Based on that plan, the concept for framework that promotes partnerships between schools and communications resources addresses the needs of our students. It also would focus on academics."

This approach would draw community members such as local medical folks, law enforcement and parents together for a common goal, she said.

King explained this community approach stems back to a few years ago when tobacco specialists were converted into regional wellness specialists. These specialists get out in the community, have regional meetings and work with local wellness teams. They also look at the county's needs and bring in the community to be part of resolutions.

King said this is the third year of building the infrastructure to this community approach.

"Together we started building the infrastructure," King said. "Paula now hopes to start bringing in the community."

School based health centers are placed strategically, Fields explained.

"They are placed where the need is the highest, where access is an issue or low socioeconomic status. We would like to have future services available to every child in every school."

King said officials would like to see more school-based health and possibly other services such as resources for substance abuse and even a Workforce West Virginia being located in the school to work with parents as well as students. 

"We have, as West Virginians, a lot of school children that live in poverty. A lot of schools are in great need. In order to support education, we have to focus on the whole child. We cannot just focus on academic achievements if we're not doing well-child visits, if the child's asthma isn't managed or even if they aren't getting physical activity breaks."

So why is it important to focus on students' health?

Fields says many studies have shown improving health has a dual effect — it also helps students' grades.

"With the framework in there, it would improve academics, and behavior. There are many pieces to the community and the medical aspect is one of those."

"One person alone can't conquer the world," Fields said. "But as a team, we can make a difference."