The hope that school can return to normal in the fall is fading fast new variants of COVID-19 threatening to strike down communities across the country and The number of hospitalizations with COVID-19 is increasing.
Many areas are dusting with COVID-19 safety and cleaning protocols and reinforcing distance learning options. All signs point to a record departure of teachers and staff in schools across the country. The era of the pandemic lack of continue to plague school districts, affecting everything from the availability of nutritious food for school lunches to basic classroom supplies. And that’s not to mention the impact high inflation and record high school gas prices. In the meantime, the school and district management continues to try to win back positions against the so-called “learning loss” that occurred during the pandemic by investing in tutoring programs and summer schools.
Faced with this dire reality, it’s understandable that school and district leaders may put serious investments in students’ physical and mental health on the back burner.
But that would be a mistake.
Child health is critical to closing the achievement gap
Student well-being, including physical and mental health, is closely intertwined with learning outcomes. In short, healthy children learn better than children who suffer from health-related problems. This is a great result from decades of research and new findings on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student outcomes.
Researchers have shown that mental health risks, including aggression, depression, and suicidal behavior, are often present in students who experience problems at school. On the other hand, researchers have found a positive correlation between exercise and certain types of cognitive skills, especially executive function. Executive function includes many of the basic skills necessary for learning: memory, attention, planning, and the ability to manage multiple tasks.
Even brief physical activity has been shown to improve students’ cognitive abilities. U one studyThe researchers asked the children to complete a cognitive task after watching TV or being physically active for 30 minutes. Children who exercised significantly outperformed children who watched TV. U another study, researchers administered tests of academic achievement after children walked on a treadmill at a moderate pace. Children who walked on a treadmill performed better on achievement tests than those who rested before testing.
There is a key equity dimension to this research. Health problems unduly influence children in low-income communities, especially urban children of color, leading to a widening achievement gap. Children from disadvantaged communities are more likely to experience pollution, food safety, housing insecurityand stressamong other factors that affect physical and mental health, which in turn affect learning.
The pandemic has only exacerbated these problems. More than 200,000 children lost their parents or guardians to COVID-19, affecting black and Hispanic children at nearly twice the rate as white children. Researchers have documented deterioration of children’s mental health during distance learning and social distancing. Just a few months after the pandemic, one in three fathers informed that their child is experiencing harm to their mental or emotional health. One study found that adolescents showed more signs of anxiety and depression and lower life satisfaction during the pandemic.
Researchers too found a significant decline in physical activity among children during the pandemic, with children from socioeconomic backgrounds particularly disadvantaged. Many experts raised worries that these differences can lead to an increased risk of diabetes, obesity and other adverse health outcomes in children in the long term. In turn, such health problems can significantly affect student learning, especially among students from disadvantaged communities. widening achievement gap which became more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What can schools do about these health problems?
Research has shown that school investment in physical education and mental health services can play a role in improving student learning outcomes. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools have stepped up or expanded existing programs food and social service to students and families. But with few trained consultants, nursesor other specialists, and with many others demands on teachers’ time and energymany schools and districts struggle to help address student mental and physical health at scale.
Instead, state-wide initiatives provide an opportunity to use the experience of the pandemic to offer health services at scale. One such model is the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) partnership with the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) to provide telemedicine services to K-12 students. The partnership officially began earlier this year, and clinical implementation began in July.
Leveraging technology investments to improve health
The $17.6 million telemedicine delivery system grant is funded by MDE from state COVID-19 relief funds. The program will rely on UMMC staff to provide telemedicine services to K-12 schools in Mississippi in the following areas: tele-emergency, tele-behavioral health, dental education and lifestyle education for students at risk for diabetes.
UMMC will conduct needs assessments with schools and districts, and set up and support the program locally by training school nurses and other staff on how to use the system. UMMC staff will convene local stakeholders to define goals and metrics for local evaluation and will continue to monitor progress throughout the life of the grant. Initially, the program will be available in four districts, but by July 2023, telemedicine services will be extended to all districts of the state.
The purpose of the program? Use preventive services to improve the health of Mississippi’s students to improve learning.
Kerry Wright, Mississippi’s recently retired superintendent of education, explained the partnership’s goals this way: “Healthy students learn better. … This program has the potential to reduce absenteeism, help parents and caregivers get faster access to services for their child, and even save lives.”
MDE leverages the technological capability that MDE has built through it Mississippi Connects program. what initiative provides computing devices to students and faculty across the state and offers infrastructure to support the use of those devices, including professional development, software, curriculum, broadband, and other resources. These devices and services are essential for students who have access to telemedicine services.
The telemedicine partnership also leverages the expertise of UMMC professionals in providing telemedicine services. The UMMC Telehealth Center has more than 200 sites in 73 of the state’s 82 counties and has expanded its telehealth capabilities during the pandemic.
According to Dr. Saurabh Chandra, chief telemedicine specialist at UMMC’s Center for Telehealth, this reach and expertise has been especially important in serving the state’s most vulnerable populations. “Telehealth has provided the means to expand access and delivery of health care, especially in rural and underserved communities,” says Chandra.
It is too early to say how effective the partnership will be. But MDE’s telemedicine partnership with UMMC promises to address health disparities that have become more pronounced during the pandemic and threaten student learning. This is a model that other states would be wise to monitor.