Imagining an Education System with Health and Equity at the Center

August 14, 2020

By Rochelle Davis

We find ourselves today in the midst of both a pandemic that has upended life as we know it and a racial reckoning that is long overdue.

COVID-19 has highlighted vast inequities, both in terms of health disparities that disproportionately affect communities of color and the unequal educational resources schools and communities have on hand to meet the immediate needs brought on by this crisis.

Healthy Schools Campaign hosted the Change for Good Town Hall this week to discuss the challenges schools face in reopening and confront what’s at stake for our schools in the upcoming election. I had the opportunity to share HSC’s recommendations for increased federal investment and cross-sector solutions to address the issues that have come to the fore.

The town hall featured John B. King Jr., president and CEO of The Education Trust, and Dr. Bechara Choucair, senior vice president and chief health officer at Kaiser Permanente, and included the perspectives of local school leaders, health experts and parents of school children.

The event title, Change for Good, inspired the framework for HSC’s recommendations. We are proposing transformative efforts that will have a lasting and meaningful impact, starting with rethinking the education system—and the services it provides beyond the essential task of teaching our children—with a renewed focus on health and equity.

Rochelle Davis’ speech at the Change for Good Town Hall

Some of the proposed ideas are not new; in fact, they have been championed by organizations and communities for years. Now is the time to work together to see them through.

The magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic exposed the importance of schools as community anchors that children and families rely on for much more than education. It also exposed the inequities on which our educational and health systems are built.

We have not invested equitably in school facilities and outdoor spaces, or in the number of school nurses and social workers needed to meet today’s challenges. School districts are trying to do the best for their students, but without support and resources, they are being set up for failure.

The infrastructure designed to support our children’s educational and health needs—and the needs of families and communities—has failed spectacularly.

This is a pivotal moment in our nation’s history: Amidst these massive and simultaneous failings, we must rise to the challenge of fundamentally rebuilding these systems.

We are seizing the opportunity to make changes for the long term—an opportunity to change for good:

We need federal investment to rebuild America’s schools.

Too many students and educators are learning and working in crumbling and unsafe buildings with asbestos, contaminated water and mold. Outdoor spaces are in terrible disrepair as well.

Even before COVID-19, more than 14 million school days were missed every year due to asthma, which is exacerbated by poor indoor air quality. A GAO report released in June found that 54 percent of school districts must replace or update heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems. We now know that COVID-19 affects the respiratory system and that asthma sufferers are considered high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19. That means indoor air quality is even more important as schools look to reopen.

Historically, there has been almost no federal funding for school facilities. Now is the time to make an unprecedented investment, starting with our most underserved communities.

We know this can be done in a way that both protects children’s health and improves the health of our communities. Space to Grow, our innovative partnership to transform schoolyards into green spaces to play and learn, uses special landscaping features and green stormwater infrastructure to make Chicago communities more resilient to frequent flooding caused by climate change. By engaging the entire school community, including area residents, together we create a schoolyard that meets many needs and serves as a source of neighborhood pride.

We also must rebuild school health services.

School health services, including physical, mental and behavioral health services, ensuring student are healthy and ready to learn.

The unprecedented school closures laid bare the extent to which schools function as an essential component of a comprehensive health system, particularly for our nation’s most vulnerable children. Yet school health services are chronically underfunded, and the burden for paying for them has largely fallen on the education sector.

For the past five years, we have led a national learning collaborative to assist states in expanding access to Medicaid-funded physical and behavioral school health services; to date, 13 states have successfully done so. More funding not only means more healthcare for the most disadvantaged students, but potentially more money for states and school districts to reinvest in health services for all students. (This HSC policy brief has more information about the benefits and lessons learned.)

We call on the federal government to increase its Medicaid contribution to states to cover health services delivered in schools. Doing so will encourage states to expand these services, which could lead to a reduction in health disparities and improve academic outcomes.

We must change the way schools are funded—at every level of government in a way that accounts for the impact of poverty and structural racism.

There can be no equity when, as The Education Trust reported, the wealthiest districts receive $1,000 more per student than the poorest districts. We need to go beyond “equal” funding. Students in poverty and from historically under-invested communities need more funding than those in wealthier communities.

We call on the next administration to support states, districts and schools in developing new approaches to creating adequate and equitable funding for schools.

We must also support schools in accessing non-education sources of funding, such as healthcare, public health and green infrastructure funds, to deliver high-quality education that includes a strong focus on health and wellness. The next administration should develop guidance that supports states, districts and schools in braiding and blending different sources of funding.

We must restructure how we procure and distribute school food.

It’s simply good public policy to offer free and nutritious school meals for all students. Doing so ensures equitable access and reduces implementation barriers to national school lunch and breakfast programs.

We must also uphold strong, science-based nutrition standards; strengthen school-community distribution capacity; and support farm-to-school programs that increase access to fresh, local ingredients while also supporting the local economy.

We look forward to sharing more details about this important work in the coming weeks.

HSC also has submitted a related set of recommendations to both presidential campaigns, emphasizing what the next administration can do on Day One to improve student health and the health of our nation.

This moment requires the bold thinking and pragmatic action that Healthy Schools Campaign is known for. Our organization has a 20-year history of working in partnership to develop successful programs and policy recommendations and advocating at the local, state and national levels. We also have deeply rooted connections to local schools and grassroots leaders.

The world we find ourselves in is not the world our children are destined for. This is our moment to strengthen schools and rethink and rebuild our education system for the long-term. A significant investment in schools would boost the national economic recovery effort, show that our country understands the value of public schools and create lasting change in every community.

We hope you’ll join us in imagining—and demanding—the future our children deserve. A future that is built on change for good.

The full Change for Good Town Hall program is available for online viewing.