Access to health care might not intuitively seem like one of the major issues affecting Georgia’s public schools, but it is, according to the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.
The Georgia nonpartisan group named health care as one of its annual “Top Ten Issues to Watch” report for 2018, citing some eye-opening statistics:
7 percent of Georgia children lack health insurance, well above the U.S. average of 5 percent;
8 percent of Georgia babies arrive without prenatal care, compared to the U.S. average of 6 percent;
Children whose mothers didn’t receive prenatal care are seven times more likely to give birth prematurely;
9.5 percent of Georgia babies are low birth weight, compared to 8.1 percent nationally;
Nearly 15 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 19 have vision impairment significant enough to cause them to miss one or more grade levels.
Access to health care, or the lack of it, is closely correlated with two of the Partnership’s other 10 issues for this year – poverty and the issues facing rural schools and rural Georgia, where four hospitals have closed since 2010, according to the report.
The correlation between poor health and poor grades is well-established, said Amy Roark, director of nursing for the Clarke County School District. Each school in the district has its own school nurse.
She quoted former U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders: “You can’t educate a child who isn’t healthy, and you can’t keep a child healthy who isn’t educated.”
Sometimes, a child’s problems with reading are really about needing glasses, a vision problem, for example, said Dawn Meyers, the Clarke County School District’s Associate Director of Policy and School Support Services.
Unmet health care and mental health needs impact children developmentally, academically and socially, she said.
With one of the nation’s highest poverty rates for a city its size, many Athens children do have unmet health needs, she said.
And many who do are dependent on PeachCare, the federally and state funded program that provides health care for many low-income children in Georgia.
Clarke officials in recent years launched an intensive drive to enroll as many children as possible in PeachCare, Meyers said.
Each school now has its own nurse, though those positions are part-time in a few schools.
They see children who are sick, and help children keep track of medications they may urgently need during the day, such as asthma inhalers and allergy medications.
They average seeing between 20 and 60 students a day for one reason or another, Roark said.
In November, a school nurse at Fowler Drive Elementary School led an emergency response team that saved a child’s life when the 7-year-old’s heart stopped.
They also help children with serious conditions that might require treatments such as feeding tubes.
Some schools have school-based mental health clinics.
“We’ve made great gains,” Meyers said. ‘It’s the best investment in education we can get.”