We live in a time where, more than ever, the importance of healthy schools is paramount.
As disruptive as the federal stay-at-home orders are for many families, it can be especially harmful for families and caregivers who rely on schools to provide essential services for their children. As the lines outside of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Grab and Go sites indicate, thousands of families rely on schools to provide meals for their children. According to one statistic, almost 30 million children in America receive 1 or more of their meals at school. This number swells in size when we account for after-school provider meals, summer meals, and school breakfasts. This is especially important as we consider that almost 1 in every 5 children in America experiences childhood hunger and family food insecurity; and that children represent 45% of Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program recipients. For many American families, school meals are some of the only reliable food they can access for their children.
A growing number of children access most of their health services from schools across over 1,500 school-based health care sites. Preliminary research suggests that schools function as the ‘de facto mental health system for children and adolescents’, with 70-80% of all child and adolescent mental health services delivered in a school setting – making schools one of the only places where children can receive mental health and behavioral supports.
It is clear that schools are essential institutions for entire communities. Schools are also front-line sites that deliver essential public health services, including monitoring health status of individuals in our community; informing, educating, and empowering families about their health; mobilizing community partnerships to solve community health problems; linking individuals and families to health services and health insurance; and educating a competent health workforce for the future.
Children spend over 1,000 hours a year in their school buildings. This is the setting, outside of the home, where children spend the most time learning, growing, and playing. While they are in school they are learning not just their assigned subject areas, but they are learning how to live in a world with other people, how to resolve conflict, how to grow, and change and adapt. While they are in school, our children are growing into the artists, scientists, leaders, problem-solvers, change-makers, and innovators of the future.
Advocating for healthy schools is not just about ‘green school’ aesthetics. It’s not just about sustainability, or equitable consumption of resources, or carbon footprints. Healthy schools are about – at the end of the day, our work is always about – our children, their health, and their success. Working towards healthy schools also means advocating for and assuring the good health and wellness of the people who care for our children. We believe strongly in the research that suggests that student health is foundational to student success.
We want children to return to schools that are prepared to meet their needs. In this moment, we are learning a lot about what changes we will need to make to support our students, our teachers, and our school staff in the future. When schools re-open, we want them to be equipped to be successful in meeting the needs of every child. Every child deserves a healthy school where they can learn, grow, and play. Every child deserves the right to learn in a safe and toxic-free setting. Every parent, educator, and school staff person deserves the comfort of knowing that school buildings are free of mold, environmental hazards like lead, radon, and asbestos, and pests.
In order to make this a reality, we need equitable distribution of resources.
We need committed fiscal investment into our aging public school infrastructure.
We need to prioritize support for school staff, including school nurses, school psychologists, behavioral therapists, food services workers, and facilities, custodial, and maintenance staff.
We need to come together, as advocates, parents, neighbors, educators, and decision-makers, to support our shared vision of healthy schools for every child.