Region One to launch three school-based health centers

FALLS VILLAGE — On any given day in the Region One School District, and across the state and region, children and adolescents go to school with physical and mental health issues, or don’t go at all, threatening not only their educational performance, but their well-being.

To combat this concerning trend, particularly in underserved and rural communities, the Region One School District has teamed up with Community Health & Wellness Center (CHWC) to bring health-related services to children and adolescents at Housatonic Valley Regional High School (HVRHS), North Canaan Elementary School and Sharon Center School through school-based health centers, or SBHCs.

The centers will be operated by CHWC, a Federally Qualified Healthcare Center, and funded through a two-year, $315,000 grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The grant will cover the cost of hiring an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and a medical assistant to serve all three Region One schools.

The APRN will staff HVRHS three days per week, and the social worker two days per week.

The North Canaan Elementary School health center will host the APRN on two days and the social worker on two days.

Sharon Center School will be staffed one day per week by the social worker, according to CHWC officials.

“The SBHC launch will be on April 29. The launch will be near the opening of the North Canaan Health Center, which is a regional health center that will serve all of the surrounding towns,” said Gina Burrows, CHWC’s COO and an APRN.

“The idea is to treat mental health issues and physical issues early on,” said Burrows. “Kids spend most of their days in school, so to have a health center located in the school is a huge benefit. It also increases graduation rates by keeping kids in school.”

In a Jan. 19 newsletter announcement to Region One parents, HVRHS Principal Ian Strever described the high school’s health center as a “game changer for our students, providing them with convenient access to a certified nurse practitioner. This means that students will no longer need to leave the school premises to address medical concerns, as the nurse practitioner will be available to offer expert care right on site.”

In a phone interview, Strever explained that the health center will be located in what was formerly a teacher’s lounge. Recently, the room was used to isolate students who tested positive for COVID-19 until they could get a ride home.

Strever said the school has historically had problems with absenteeism, and a significant amount of that is due to the logistics of getting students to medical appointments in distant locations.

Other benefits of SBHCs include students’ ability to take school and sports physicals on-site, they can be diagnosed and treated for illnesses such as COVID-19, the flu, strep, and treated for chronic illnesses such as asthma. Medications, too, can be prescribed.

The pandemic didn’t help, Strever added, as students — and parents — exercised caution and stayed home when they experienced symptoms of COVID-19 whether they had it or not: “We’ll be able to do that on site now.”

Breaking down societal barriers

Burrows pointed to a growing trend in SBHCs locally and nationwide. She said there are currently seven SBHCs in the Torrington Public School System administered by CHWC, and roughly 180 throughout the state.

Collaboration between parents/caregivers and school staff, including school nurses, counselors and officials, are key to the centers’ successes, said Burrows.

“We work collaboratively, hand in hand with students’ pediatricians, and if they don’t have one and need a primary care provider, we can be their provider,” she explained.

From the standpoint of psychological services, “individual, group and family therapy” will be offered, Burrows noted.

Parents must sign an enrollment form for students to receive services, and health information is shared with the students’ primary care providers. All services provided by SBHCs follow HIPAA privacy laws and all state laws regarding health confidentiality.

Regardless of student’s insurance status, said Burrows, “there are no out-of-pocket costs for any family.”

During schools’ off hours, or during the summer months or school vacations, students can access services at the North Canaan Health Center, where their electronic medical records will be stored.

A key component of SBHCs, said Burrows, is the ability to break down societal barriers, called social determinants of health, and be able to identify nonmedical factors that impede students’ health, such as food insecurity, housing instability and lack of transportation:

“They eliminate barriers for kids and families. Our priority is equity and providing services to all kids.”

Educators welcome help

According to a 2023 advisory committee report to the Public Health and Education Committees on School Based Health Centers, SBHCs have earned the recognition as an “essential component of the state’s safety net for over 36,500 enrolled students in Pre-K through Grade 12, residing in 27 communities.

During fiscal year 2021-2022, the 90 state-funded SBHCs served almost 22,000 students with a total of 128,365 visits. Of those visits, 63,556 were mental health-related provided to 4091 students, according to the report.

The report noted that post pandemic, Connecticut students continue to suffer from increased feelings of anxiety and depression, peer relationship issues, school avoidance and identity concerns as well as social determinants of health.

“The uncertainty of the new variants puts additional stress on our children,” the advisory committee reported.

The findings also reveal that educators “welcome the presence of a team of health professionals dedicated to prevention and treatment of students’ physical and emotional concerns.”

A growing trend

SBHCs are rapidly expanding across the country as they demonstrate increased access to health care and prevent downstream health care, resulting in associated costs to society.

In Lakeville, the private Hotchkiss School, an independent boarding and day school with about 600 students, is the site of a school-based health center known as the Wieler Health Center.

According to the school’s website, the health center is powered by a nurse practitioner, a team of registered nurses, two administrative support staff, a part-time driver, and five mental health counselors as well as about a dozen full- and part-time per diem nurses.

Hotchkiss officials declined an opportunity to comment.

There are SBHCs across the border in Dutchess County, New York. In May 2022, the Webutuck Central School District (WCSD) opened its FQHC school-based health care center in a hallway between Eugene Brooks Intermediate School and Webutuck High School in Amenia, New York. Today it is a fully functioning facility open to all students residing in the school district.

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