School health centers are vital for Appalachian families

Published 1:22 am Friday, April 8, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has been disruptive and devastating for too many, including our school-aged children. 

Time will tell what long-term impacts the pandemic will have on our students, families and communities. This spring, as the governor and state legislature make decisions around investing additional federal COVID-19 relief dollars, expanding the footprint of Ohio’s School-Based Health Centers (SBHCs) would be a smart use of these one-time funds.

For more than 30 years, SBHCs in Ohio have improved the health and education outcomes of the students they serve. SBHCs are health centers located in or near a school that deliver health services to students (pre-K-12). 

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Many SBHCs also serve school staff, parents and siblings of students, and other community members. In these cases, SBHCs often stay open beyond normal school hours and during summers.

In a typical SBHC model, a sponsoring entity operates and administers the SBHC and employs or contracts with staff to provide healthcare services. SBHCs are commonly sponsored by community healthcare providers such as federally qualified health centers (FQHCs), hospitals or local health departments. SBHCs provide primary and preventative care services, which many times includes medical, behavioral health, and often dental and vision services, too. 

While there is a clear need to develop SBHC’s across our entire state, our Appalachian region would benefit significantly. The Appalachian region covers 32 counties and stretches south along the Ohio River and as far north as Lake Erie. Among the hundreds of schools in the region, today there are only 18 SBHCs. 

The State of Ohio, under the leadership of Gov. Mike DeWine and bipartisan legislative leaders, have previously made significant investments in student wellness and capacity-building at existing SBHCs. But there is more to do in support of communities across the entire state. Whether it’s developing a SBHC in a new community or supporting an existing SBHC to add more services onsite like dental or vision or extending behavioral health capacity, growing Ohio’s SBHC footprint will drive better health and educational results. 

According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, SBHCs drive benefits such as improved grade point averages, increased preventatives care, higher rates of high school completion and reduced educational gaps and health disparities. Additionally, other research has found many links between SBHCs and increased school attendance. Because chronic absenteeism is the result of complex mental, physical, and family health issues, SBHCs play an integral part in strategically addressing attendance problems. 

Ohio is currently home to more more than 100 SBHCs across 25 counties, and that’s a good start. Prudent use of one-time federal Covid funds for initial capital and start-up expenses will help expand these important services to more Ohio communities, including our Appalachian counties. 

Spring is a time for healing and renewal and an opportunity for our state to renew and further support SBHCs in more Ohio communities. 

Randy Runyon is president and CEO of the Ohio Association of Community Health Centers.