It’s back to school—the time of year when kids trade their swimming suits for textbooks. For parents, educators and elected officials, it’s a chance to consider how our schools can protect and promote the health of our children. Massachusetts schools should be healthy schools where kids learn in a safe environment, develop good habits and have access to health care and preventative health services.
Providing quality health services at school is common sense. It’s good health and education policy. School health programs keep students in school and adults at work. For thousands of uninsured children, schools are their major source of primary health care, as well as a link to other services and programs. School health services are also essential for the increasing the number of children with chronic health problems requiring special care.
The state provides funding for two successful school health programs. Currently, 103 school districts receive grants to help pay for nurses, equipment and screenings. In addition, the state provides funding to 49 school-based health centers, clinics which provide primary care and preventative services to students. Unfortunately, the state budget for school health was slashed by 72 percent several years ago. While some of these cuts have been reversed, funding doesn’t match the need.
The opportunities for preventing illness and injury at school are as important as taking care of kids if they’re hurt or sick. Schools can be part of the solution to the epidemic of childhood obesity. In Massachusetts, 27 percent of high school students are overweight or obese. Overweight children are at higher risk of developing diabetes, asthma, heart disease and low self-esteem.
Children are over-eating food and drinks high in fat and sugar. One source of this problem is the sale of junk food in schools. The easy availability of candy, chips and sugary drinks encourages unhealthy eating habits. The legislature is considering a bill to promote good eating habits in children by establishing healthy standards for snacks and drinks sold in schools.
A safe environment, including clean air, is also essential to protecting children’s health. Unfortunately, chemicals contained in household and industrial cleaners are being linked to asthma, reproductive harm and other health problems. Children are particularly vulnerable to minute exposures to these substances. Studies have also shown that cleaning workers are being sickened by the products that they use.
The good news is that safer alternatives exist and are being put to use—including in the State House, as well as schools in Boston and Milton. The legislature is considering a bill requiring that safer alternatives be used in schools across the Commonwealth, as well as in health care facilities, public housing and other public facilities.
The Massachusetts Public Health Association encourages parents, educators, and elected officials to support these polices. For more information, please visit our web site, www.mphaweb.org.
Eric Weltman and Terry Mason
Massachusetts Public Health Association
Eric Weltman is deputy director of advocacy and policy for the Massachusetts Public Health Association (MPHA). Terry Mason is a Jamaica Plain resident and is MPHA’s deputy director for program and policy research.