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Public Schools and Public Health

posted on Wed, Jul 27 2011 10:14 am by Kathleen Dachille

Public Health at Public School
It is the middle of summer and I am writing about school - not cool, I know. But the idea was provoked by an article I read recently in the American Journal of Public Health. The piece suggests integrating public health messaging into the school system.

The author, Dr. Ira Wile, proposes some clever ideas to do this, such as having math problems that use facts related to hygiene and vital statistics rather than traditional commerce-related questions, encouraging art projects that result in dynamic posters containing public health messages and incorporating information about food safety in home economics courses.

What a fabulous idea! What’s incredible is that Wile wrote the article in 1917.

Flash forward 94 years, assess where we are with the relationship between the school system and the public health system, and it is easy to say we’ve come a long way.

Take my own experiences in public school: Annual hearing and vision screening (which to my chagrin revealed the need for eyeglasses in 6th grade); sex ed (the teachers finally had our rapt attention); Duso the Dolphin (who taught us to understand ourselves and others); and the President’s Physical Fitness Award (remember the impossible rope climb?).

I am curious to hear about what our readers remember about their public-health-related school experiences. Please begin that chatter in the comment section! But also think about how law and policy change have significantly expanded the connection between schools and public health.

I started writing a list of public health laws and policies that involve the school system, and it began to resemble my niece’s Christmas Wish List: long and diverse (her 50-item list included a Care Bear and a punching bag).

First on my list was mandatory vaccinations for entry to school; all 50 states require certain vaccinations. This certainly contributes to our success with immunization rates and disease eradication. The free and reduced school breakfast and lunch program, created under federal law, improves the nutritional health of many children.

State and local policies also mandate the provision of fluoride treatments to children on well water, minimum time for physical activity and that school personnel report suspected child abuse and neglect. There are laws requiring schools to adopt and enforce policies to prevent bullying, protect children with nut allergies and administer surveys that provide public health officials with important data. The list goes on.

What we have learned is that law and policy play a significant role in creating the collaboration Wile proposed in 1917.

As the pendulum swings and the economy sours, we experience opposition to using schools to improve public health. School systems understandably recoil at new mandates, fearing exhaustion of limited resources, and some community members fight what they perceive as inappropriate government interference. Given the incredible success we have had in developing public health policies using the school system, we must respect these concerns, but not retreat.

Just as Wile recommended 94 years ago, we must make the most of the collaboration between schools and public health agencies. I look forward to reading your ideas - in the comment section below or by email, if you prefer - on low or no-cost school-based policies that will build on our long history of success.

Now . . . back to summer vacation.

This information was developed by Kathleen Dachille, director of the Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.
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