Kids have always come to school sick. They have fevers or stomachaches or the flu. Or they twist an ankle in gym or get a cut or bruise in class.
But schools today cope with much more than routine illnesses and accidents.
“A school nurse sees just about everything you can think of,” says Kerry Ramos, R.N., who coordinates health services for more than 7,300 students in Round Lake School District 116. “We have teens who are pregnant or struggling with depression. We see kids with chest pain, high and low blood pressure, chronic asthma, diabetes, seizure disorders, food allergies, cancer, sickle cell.”
For the roughly 2,300 students at Round Lake High School, getting care for whatever ails them got a little easier in October 2014, when the Round Lake High School Health and Wellness Center opened for business. Operating just three days a week—at least for now—the center offers an impressively comprehensive menu of on-site services designed to keep kids healthy and in school, from immunizations and lab tests to behavioral health services and the management of chronic illnesses. Every student whose parents give permission can use the center, making it an important healthcare resource in an area that is chronically underserved.
Lake County Health Department and Community Health Center (LCHD), which built and equipped the center with a half-million dollar federal grant, is responsible for students’ primary care. Other services, such as substance abuse counseling and an evidence-based asthma health education program for parents and students, are provided by center partners, including Nicasa, Rosalind Franklin University, Advocate Condell Medical Center, Mano a Mano, and the Respiratory Health Association.
Partnerships were central to the project’s success. Key stakeholders—educators, healthcare providers, and community leaders—worked together to collect data, get public input, and prioritize needs. Widespread public support helped turn the planning into reality.
“It’s a great reward at the end of four years of hard work, for all of us,” says Jeanne Ang, LCHD’s director of primary care services. “From the beginning, the project was a true collaboration, one to increase access to care and decrease the very apparent health disparities in this community. And most of us involved today have been there from day one, including the Healthcare Foundation. They started by funding the feasibility study that enabled us to say ‘yes, we can and should do this,’ and now they are underwriting our operating expenses as the project gets going.”
From the perspective of healthcare providers, school-based health centers just make sense. Locate the care where the kids are, and you increase the odds that it will be accessed sooner, by more people, to greater effect.
To district superintendent Constance Collins, Ph.D., who, with Nanci Radford, president of the district’s board of education, played a critical role on the project advisory committee, the academic benefits are equally clear. “Our focus is academic achievement. But if kids are not in their seats, they cannot learn,” she says.
On-site immunizations and physicals mean more children can start school on time and participate in activities. On-site behavioral and medical care mean more and better use of instructional time, as fewer kids are sidelined by illness in class or sent home until their parents can get them to a doctor. “If kids are not healthy, if they’re not fed, if they’re worried about things at home, it decreases the likelihood that they are going to be successful in school,” says Collins. “So it’s our responsibility, as educators, to help them overcome those barriers.
“It’s been a long time coming, but it’s definitely worth the wait.”