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In health care deserts, school-based health centers serve students

Students with chronic health conditions face a higher likelihood of missing school due to their illness symptoms or medical treatments.
Posted at 2:29 PM, Feb 16, 2024

Oscar Zabala Sr. and Oscar Zabala Jr. arrived at a health center in Douglas County, Georgia.

Oscar Jr. is in sixth grade. He was fine when he woke up but soon after was hit with stomach pain and nausea. Within minutes of arriving at the clinic, he was seen by a practitioner and an interpreter.

"It's another advantage of this clinic," Zabala Sr. said in Spanish. "I just came in, and right away they see us in minutes," Zabala said.

It's fast and thorough. It's also at a school.

The center is attached to and part of Burnett Elementary School in the Douglas County school district.

A child's health affects their education, and their education affects their health. But for so long, education and health rarely intertwined beyond the nurse's office. But these days, phrases like "chronic absenteeism," "health care deserts" and "achievement gap" are common parlance in the discussion of education.

School-based health centers are a common response.

"A lot of our children are missing school or even our employees are missing work, due to having to take off to make doctor's appointments," said Mitzi Teal with Douglas County Schools.

School-based health centers, or SBHCs, offer physicals, immunizations, eye exams, mental health care and sometimes dental care. At the turn of the century, there were barely 1,000 SBHCs nationwide. Today, the number has nearly quadrupled.

Douglas County's clinic opened in 2016. Officials chose an old music classroom in the only elementary school with available space. In a district of 26,000 students, the clinic sees nearly a dozen patients a day.

The challenge is the cost.

"The partner has to have the infrastructure to have their staff members here," Teal said.

School-based health centers aren't run by the schools. They require medical partners to handle operations and billing. In Douglas County, that's Family Health Centers of Georgia. Fredericka Roper oversees their five clinics in three Georgia counties.

"Basically, all five of the communities are health care deserts," Roper said. "They don't really have a lot of pediatric health care in those areas. And the accessibility is, like, none."

Mounting evidence says SBHCs work. A review from the CDC found they increased immunizations and decreased hospitalizations. Financially, they largely survive off federal and state funds, as well as discounted billing from appointments.

That brings us to Oscar Zabala Jr. By appointment's end, he was not cured, but he'd been checked out at a place where health and education intertwine.