The Role of Healthy Schools in Education
The research is clear: healthy students are better learners. They miss fewer days of school, are better able to focus in class and are more ready to learn.
Low-income students and students of color are at increased risk for health problems that impede learning. These students also are more likely to attend schools with unhealthy environments and limited health services.
Education policies and practices can be powerful tools for building school environments that support healthy learners.
Educators’ Support Is Essential
Educators overwhelmingly support efforts to improve the health outcomes—and therefore educational outcomes—of students and schools. School administrators have also recognized that creating a positive school environment is fundamental to the enterprise of education.
However, government policies sometimes hinder educators from transforming their schools and practices. Despite clear evidence documenting the benefits of healthy school environments, policies and guidelines at the national, state and district level can make it challenging for schools to integrate emerging best practices for supporting students’ healthy growth and development—and thus their learning—into the daily routine of school.
Cultivating health and wellness in schools will require leadership and commitment at many levels, from classrooms, to district leaders, to state and national policymakers. Fortunately, with recent changes in education policy, there are substantial opportunities to overcome these barriers and increase access to positive school environments for students across the country.
Systemic Changes to Support Healthy Schools
Mainstream conversations around education now include supporting students’ physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. At the same time, shifts in education and health policy have created new opportunities and frameworks to transform schools in a way that prioritizes student wellbeing.
But there is much work to be done.
Healthy Schools Campaign has identified three key systemic changes—endorsed and substantiated by educators and policymakers nationwide—that need to be addressed in order to ensure schools have the resources and support needed to create positive school environments.
Measurement and Accountability Systems
For schools nationwide to make student wellbeing a top priority, indicators that measure student health and wellness need to be measured and enforced. When health indicators, like access to physical education, go unmeasured, they are discounted as nonessential.
Recent changes in federal education laws have provided opportunities and incentives for states to prioritize and measure student wellness. In 2015, Congress passed the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), empowering states to create school standards that focus specifically on improving student health and wellbeing. In response, an increasing number of states have incorporated health metrics into their annual school report cards and required low-performing schools to address identified needs.
Thirty-six states and Washington, D.C. now include chronic absenteeism in their accountability systems. Eight states include school climate. Five additional states track school discipline metrics. Five states measure access to physical education, health education classes and mental health supports. And four states consider suspension rates.
COVID-19 and the recent school closings have changed the conversation around education accountability with states receiving waivers for accountability measures and student assessments. And, this is happening as ESSA is now overdue for reauthorization.
The understanding that student health is fundamental to academic success has created a need for new professional development programs that equip educators to better meet the needs of the whole child. A recent study showed that elementary school teachers currently spend 180 hours per school year addressing student health issues.
In a healthy school, teachers are provided with professional development related to students’ physical and emotional development. Health and wellness are infused in math classes, science lessons, lunch periods, classroom management strategies and everything in between.
Recent changes allow federal funding for educators’ professional development to be used to provide training to teachers and principals on how to address chronic absenteeism and behavioral health issues. The funding also can go toward supporting staff health and wellness—something that can help teacher retention and productivity.
School Health Services Funding Streams
Schools can play a critical role in providing basic health and behavioral health services that support student health and wellness. Yet, most schools lack the proper resources and funding to provide meaningful school-based healthcare.
Fortunately, a reversal in federal policy has created a pathway for schools to leverage Medicaid funding to provide a wide range of health services directly to students—from managing chronic health conditions and conducting early detection screenings, to administering immunizations and treating mental health issues. The policy change allows school districts to receive reimbursement for eligible health services provided in schools to all Medicaid-enrolled students, regardless of whether they have Individualized Education Programs.
Despite the federal policy change, state policies and programs often impede school districts from accessing Medicaid funding. States have significant flexibility in designing their own Medicaid programs, including making choices about what health services get covered and who is eligible to receive those services. That has led to substantial discrepancies across states in how and whether school districts are reimbursed for providing on-site health care.
Educators play a significant role in coordinated efforts advocating for state changes that increase Medicaid services in school. It is also important for school officials to learn how Medicaid reimburses for school health services and what school-based health services the federal program can provide in their respective states.
Making Student Wellness an Integral Part of Education
Healthy Schools Campaign helps to shape policies and practices at the local, state and federal level to improve student health.
HSC assists states around the nation in implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to its full potential in ways that ensure students are educated in healthy, equitable learning environments. That means providing state education agencies with frameworks that empower them to:
- Track clearly-defined, school-by-school health data as part of annual report cards
- Create strong accountability systems that provide support to low-performing schools
- Disseminate best practices for classroom management and school-based healthcare
Addressing Chronic Absenteeism
HSC provides resources to state officials, school districts and educators to help them assess and address the root causes of chronic absenteeism. While COVID-19 has disrupted school attendance and the use of chronic absenteeism data as an accountability metric, using attendance data to support improved academic achievement is still an effective strategy. By analyzing chronic absenteeism data, schools can target attention and resources on students who are chronically absent and provide necessary supports and assistance to make sure that they are in school, healthy and ready to learn.
Leveraging Medicaid Funds
HSC advises state and local officials on how to better leverage Medicaid funds to expand school-based health services that provide medical care to students free of charge. We help policymakers understand how existing laws in their state might limit Medicaid reimbursement for school health and how to make the federal funding more accessible to school health providers.
Building Cross-sector Partnerships
We have helped to build coalitions and cross-sector partnerships to promote healthy school environments. That includes advising school educational agencies on how to collaborate with state health departments and departments of mental health to develop better school-based health strategies and data sharing. At a local level, we instruct school officials on how to partner with local medical providers and community-based resources to create coordinated approaches to improving student health.
Advocating for Wellness in Chicago Public Schools
HSC advocates for policies that support healthy classrooms across Chicago Public Schools. We have successfully supported the adoption of district-wide health and wellness policies in Chicago that strengthen physical education, improve access to quality school meals, transform schoolyards and create healthier classrooms. We continue to work to empower school stakeholders—teachers administrators, students and parents—to push for positive school environments.
What You Can Do
Your voice matters in urging national, state and school leaders to prioritize student health and wellness in education policy and practices. We invite you to learn more and lend your voice to the dialogue about healthy school environments:
- The Every Student Succeeds Act is due for reauthorization after the 2020-2021 school year. Sign up for our Education Policy newsletter (in the sidebar) to stay up-to-date on advocacy efforts around this policy.
- Download our Schools Are Key to Improving Children’s Health brief, which offers an easy-to-understand but comprehensive look at the new funding stream offered by the opportunity to expand school health services.
- Download our Addressing the Health-Related Causes of Chronic Absenteeism: A Toolkit for Action, which focuses on identifying and and providing strategies for addressing the health-related reasons students miss school.
- Connect with us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram (@healthyschools)
Make a Donation
As a nonprofit organization, we rely on support from people like you so we can continue to make schools healthier places where all children can learn and thrive. Your gift—large or small—will make a meaningful difference.
Access related resources below, or go to our main Resource Center to access resources across all of our program and policy areas.
Making Connections Backpack – Prevention Institute
The Making Connections Backpack is a resource library from Prevention Institute for those engaged in building a gendered and community-level approach to improving mental wellbeing among men and boys. The…
Addressing the Health-Related Causes of Chronic Absenteeism: A Toolkit for Action
This document focuses on providing educators, particularly school district decision-makers, with knowledge and practical guidance for creating meaningful change to address health-related chronic absenteeism.
State Education Policy that Supports Student Health and Wellness
This document describes key sections of the law with the highest potential to impact student health, outlines current state efforts, highlights best practices and provides recommendations for advancing this work at the state and local level.
ESSA Implementation: Key Opportunities to Support Health and Wellness
Implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides a number of policy levers for promoting healthy schools and student wellness. This document summarizes Healthy Schools Campaign’s analysis of those opportunities.