Samira SoleimanpourIt’s National Public Health Week! We’re spotlighting this year’s daily NPHW themes with a series of guest posts from APHA members. Today’s NPHW theme is education, and our guest post comes from Samira Soleimanpour, PhD, MPH, a senior researcher at the University of California-San Francisco’s Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies. Soleimanpour currently serves as chair of APHA’s School Health Education and Services Section.

The COVID-19 outbreak is drastically changing our nation’s everyday lives and will continue to for the unforeseen future. Among many public health issues, this crisis brought to the forefront our education system’s significant role in protecting the health and well-being of youth and families.

The outbreak both illuminates and exacerbates the considerable disparities that our nation’s youth already face. Fortunately, with coordinated public health efforts, schools can continue addressing some of these systemic maladies.

Beyond the critical role of educating our youth, schools provide access to resources that are fundamental to healthy development. Among these are nutritious meals; stable, structured, supervised and enriching environments that facilitate social relationships with peers and caring adults; and vital links to medical and mental health services. Our nation’s most vulnerable youth — including low-income, immigrant, foster and homeless youth — are most likely to lack these essential developmental building blocks at home. They’re also disproportionately affected by unplanned, prolonged school closures that limit or eliminate access.

As we navigate these unprecedented and uncertain times, we have an opportunity to develop innovative ways to strengthen the education system to better address the root causes of persistent disparities and ensure youth have uninterrupted access to these resources. Extensive research shows social and economic factors clearly impact educational success and yet, school resources are often distributed based on community wealth rather than community need. The solutions of the future must focus on achieving equity to ensure that necessary funding is provided to youth and communities with the greatest needs.

School health services are a proven strategy to decrease inequalities and improve health and education outcomes by addressing many barriers to access, such as transportation and costs, particularly for vulnerable youth. School nurses provide diverse services, including ongoing management of students’ special health care needs and chronic conditions. School-based mental health clinicians and community-based mental health professionals working in schools often serve as the primary or only source of care for students with mental health concerns.

School-based health centers provide accessible primary, mental health, dental and vision care to youth who may not receive this care otherwise. All of these providers also extend their efforts to support school staff and communities through school-wide health education and promotion activities.

Through this crisis, many of these providers are finding ways to continue to serve students despite school closures – through telehealth, limited hours for in-person visits that comply with social distancing guidelines, and telephone calls to check in on students’ well-being. We need to fortify these existing services and expand them so that all youth who need them can benefit. As schools reopen, we also need to implement principles of trauma-informed care in every school to help our children, educators and partners recover and heal. In particular, staff wellness must be a priority. Supporting students through traumatic experiences takes a serious toll on school staff, who are navigating their own difficult experiences as well.

Schools are an essential part of ensuring the health and well-being of all young people, and investing in school health is a critical step to effectively decreasing disparities in our education system. But we must also look beyond these investments to find solutions that will more equitably distribute resources. Young people need educators who feel supported, healthy and valued. They need equitable access to technology and learning, clean and safe buildings, and smaller classrooms. They need uninterrupted and expanded access to health and wellness services that are proven to remove barriers to learning. Children in lower-resourced communities need all of these things now more than ever.

We need to work with our partners in education, government, health care and the private sector to allocate funds and resources to promote school environments that protect and promote the health, healing, learning and future of all children.

To learn more about National Public Health Week and get involved, visit www.nphw.org, follow @NPHW on Twitter and use the hashtag #NPHW all this week. For resources, news and advocacy on the coronavirus pandemic, visit APHA’s COVID-19 page. For more on how each day’s NPHW theme intersects with COVID-19, visit nphw.org/nphw-2020/covid-19.