Policy Shapes School Health
The conditions that create a healthy school environment do not appear by accident or luck; they result from policy decisions made at the federal, state and district levels. These results are not always intentional. For example, a combination of federal, state and local policies prioritizing time spent on academic subjects over the past decade led schools across the country to eliminate time for recess and physical education. Other times, the results are deliberate; a district policy reinstating recess in Chicago Public Schools, for example, was directly connected to advocacy from parents, educators and community members speaking up for wellness at school.
At HSC, our role is to ensure that as policies are being developed or debated, student health and wellness are prioritized and policymakers understand the potential impact of their decisions on student health.
We recognize that meaningful policy must be informed by on-the-ground knowledge. We engage parents, teachers, principals, school cleaning staff, school nutrition managers, students and many others in creating healthy school environments. With the knowledge and experiences that result, we work with these school stakeholders to speak up for meaningful, practical policies that help create and sustain the conditions of health in schools.
We believe that unless the foundational policies that structure our schools support the conditions of health, our nation’s best education and health efforts will be compromised.
National Policy Agenda
The federal government plays an important role in providing a policy environment that can support student health. In particular, several key policies and programs have a significant impact on schools’ ability to support student health and wellness.
In addition, the next President of the United States has several key opportunities to support states, school districts and communities in creating the conditions of student health and wellness. See Healthy Schools Campaign’s recommendations to the next President for improving health and education.
Elementary and Secondary Education Act
Most recently reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is the bill that authorizes the federal government’s role in education. It sets the framework for how we prioritize education by setting metrics for accountability, establishing priorities for grant funding and defining criteria for excellence, among other measures. It essentially sets the agenda for our nation’s education efforts and dialogue. In December 2015, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. (Its last prior reauthorization was as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.) The new Every Student Succeeds Act includes several provisions that support student health. For example, it recognizes health as a fundable expenditure within the education sector and identifies chronic absenteeism (which is often closely related to health) as a key reportable measure. These are important steps for making health part of our national education dialogue. For more, see our sections on education policy and the National Collaborative.
Child Nutrition Act
Most recently reauthorized as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010
The Child Nutrition Act authorizes our nation’s school meal programs, including the National School Lunch Program and National School Breakfast Program. It provides most of the funding for school meals and sets nutrition standards for these meals. The act also plays a role in creating a healthy food environment throughout the school: it requires all school districts that participate in the National School Lunch Program to have a school wellness policy, it sets standards for food available in schools outside the meal program, such as from vending machines and fundraisers, and it funded the Farm to Schools Grants program. In 2010, the Child Nutrition Act was reauthorized as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act following two years of advocacy by HSC and many other organizations. This bill authorized the USDA to update the nutrition standards for the school meal program, bringing them into alignment with the latest science-based dietary guidelines, for the first time in more than 15 years. Now, advocates on both sides—including HSC—are preparing for the dialogue around the next reauthorization. Learn more in our school food policy section.
Most recently reauthorized as the Agricultural Act of 2014
The Farm Bill is a foundational policy that sets the framework for our nation’s food system. It creates the context in which other food-related policy discussions—such as those related to the Child Nutrition Act—take place. Specifically as it relates to school food policy, the farm bill determines which foods will be available as commodities for school meals through the USDA Foods program. HSC’s approach to farm bill advocacy focuses on supporting our allies’ efforts to speak up for a health-promoting food system. We support a farm bill that supports public health and encourages the growth of fresh produce that is accessible to everyone.
School Facilities Evaluation and Funding
The policy discussion of school facilities is in fact a conversation about education, about the environment and most fundamentally about equity. In two key areas—evaluation and funding—the federal government has played a key role in the past and has a vital role to play moving forward. In 1996, the GAO issued a report documenting the state of our nation’s school building infrastructure and identifying significant needs. We believe the federal government should undertake this reporting of public infrastructure regularly, at least every 10 years. In 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the economic stimulus bill), the federal government provided funding to be used for repairing and modernizing school buildings. While this funding represented a small percentage of the overall need, its significant impact highlights the role the federal government can play in improving the conditions of our nation’s schools, particularly to address great disparities in access to safe, modern school facilities. For more, see our environmental policy section and the Center for Green Schools’ excellent State of Our Schools report [pdf].
Environmental Health Policy
The federal government plays a supportive role related to school environmental health policy by issuing guidance through the EPA and CDC. This includes best practice guides for school siting, indoor air quality, integrated pest management and more. For more, see our environmental policy section.
In recent decades, the federal government has supported student health through the CDC’s “blueprint for integrating health-promoting practices in the school setting,” now called the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child approach. The passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 created new opportunities for federal policy to support student health in the form of health services provided by a school nurse, at a school health clinic or through other models. The act’s emphasis on prevention, population health and community care has brought new attention to the key role schools can play in our transforming healthcare system. HSC co-convenes the National Collaborative on Education and Health, which focuses on prioritizing student health through increased collaboration between the health and education sectors; this work is closely informed by federal health policy. For more, see the National Collaborative and our section on health policy.
State Policy Agenda
State governments play an important role in providing a policy environment that can support student health. Policies and programs in several key areas have a significant impact on schools’ ability to support student health and wellness.
States play an important role in management and implementation of the federal school nutrition program at the state level. They also set policy in several areas where federal policy specifically calls for states to determine their own standards, and they provide support in the form of technical assistance and professional development for school nutrition professionals. Many states also provide additional funding to support the school meal program. In Illinois, HSC advocates for health-supporting state policy and robust implementation of health-supporting national policy. For more, see our school food policy section.
School Facilities + Operations
State policies for school facilities vary greatly across the country. For capital improvements, state support can involve financial programs to secure adequate and equitable school funding across a state and can involve requiring health and sustainability standards such as LEED or CHPS for all new or renovated facilities. States can also play a role in supporting improved operations. One in five states now requires green cleaning in schools and many states now support schools by passing environmental health policies addressing factors ranging from integrated pest control to radon to general indoor air quality programming. See the Environmental Law Institute’s excellent reports on state policies for more detail. In Illinois, HSC advocates for policy and funding to support healthy school facilities. HSC also supports allies in states across the nation in advocating for health-promoting green clean schools policies. For more, see our environmental policy section and the policy section of our Green Clean Schools site.
School Health Services
Access to school health services are affected directly by a vast and diverse set of state-level policies. For example, many states define professional standards and certifications required for employment as a school nurse within the state, and set policy related to specific issues such as administration of medication in the school setting. At HSC, we engage with health and education advocates to ensure policies and programs are in place that support access to and resources for school health services. For example, we are working to support states in implementing the recent change in the free care policy in order to maximize the opportunity it presents and increase access to more comprehensive and coordinated care in schools. See our health policy section for more on HSC’s work on the free care policy and our School Nurse Leadership section for more on our work to engage school nurses in leadership and advocacy.
Nearly three-quarters of states have policies requiring PE from elementary through high school. However, these state policies vary widely; more than half allow exemptions and waivers, and only a few require the nationally recommended amount of weekly time for PE. HSC supports robust state policy requiring a minimum of 150 minutes of PE per week. In Illinois, HSC served on the state-level Enhance Physical Education Task Force and engages advocates to regularly speak up in support of the state’s PE requirement.
School Metrics and Accountability
The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (link to tab) calls on states to carry out a reporting role in school metrics and accountability. With the passage of the 2015 ESSA, states now must report on a number of factors related to school climate, including chronic absenteeism, an important indicator that reflects conditions of health in a school. HSC supports efforts to report chronic absenteeism data at the local and state level. This data can help states, districts and schools identify opportunities to boost attendance and academic achievement by addressing student health issues. For more, see our education policy section.
States can play an important policy and regulatory role in addressing chronic absenteeism. HSC supports state efforts to identify chronic absenteeism as a priority, gather actionable data on chronic absenteeism, and convene conversations across state agencies to raise awareness of the issue and identify opportunities for action. For more, see our education policy section.
School District Policy Agenda
Local school districts play an important role in providing a policy environment that can support student health. Policies and programs in several key areas have a significant impact on schools’ ability to support student health and wellness.
One of the primary policies affecting health and wellness at school is the Local School Wellness Policy. This policy, required of all school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program, is developed at the local level and addresses a district’s approach to promoting healthy food, physical activity, nutrition education and the general climate for wellness in school. This may include specifics such as limiting junk food fundraisers or unhealthy classroom celebrations. While districts are required by federal law to have a wellness policy, it is up to each district to make this policy useful and robust. In Chicago, HSC (and in particular, our Parents United for Healthy Schools coalition) advocated for the district to include strong health-promoting provisions in its first wellness policy. HSC has since supported the district in evaluating the effectiveness of the policy and strengthening the policy in subsequent updates.
Healthy School Food
School district policy has a direct impact on the food students eat, as districts are responsible for making and serving the food provided through the national school food program. They are also responsible for policy regarding food outside the lunch program including breakfast, snacks and even foods used in fundraising initiatives. Districts create menus and make decisions about how food is procured, how it’s prepared and how it’s presented. They also hire school nutrition staff, build and maintain kitchen facilities and provide guidance to schools on issues such as how much time students have to eat lunch. HSC has worked for many years with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to make health-promoting changes to the district’s meal program. In particular, HSC’s approach focuses on 10 interconnected pathways to excellence in school nutrition developed by parent and stakeholder advisory groups we co-convened with CPS. For more, see our school food policy section and our Chicago focus on school food.
Physical Activity and Physical Education
School district policy addresses the many ways in which students can be active during the school day, including recess, in-class activity and physical education. Districts can boost student health and learning by prioritizing PE along with other academic subjects, requiring recess in elementary schools and providing professional development to support teachers in integrating physical activity into the classroom experience. In Chicago, HSC engaged parents and other stakeholders in successful advocacy for policy supporting recess and PE; now HSC is working to help the district build its capacity in these areas. We also engage teachers and principals in professional development that includes a focus on in-class activity. For more, see our Chicago focus on physical education and Fit to Learn.
School Health Services
School districts can invest in school health services and create structures that help students stay healthy and in school. Providing students with access to school health services is a proven strategy for increasing student attendance. With the passage of the Affordable Care Act, new opportunities exist for districts to work closely with local health providers to ensure students have access to care. HSC supports increased collaboration between the health and education sectors at all levels; we focus on this issue through the National Collaborative on Education and Health and locally through direct work with Chicago Public Schools. We also work with allies across the country and provide resources and information to support districts. For more, see our health policy section.
School Facilities + Operations
School districts can adopt policy to guide the construction and renovation of school buildings in ways that support student health and learning. Many states and cities already require health and sustainability standards for school facilities; districts can reinforce these efforts and in many cases can go beyond existing requirements. For example, some districts choose to adopt health and sustainability standards such as LEED or CHPS for all new or renovated facilities. Many districts also adopt health-promoting policies addressing operational issues such as green cleaning, integrated pest management and activities that affect indoor air quality. HSC provides resources to support districts in developing and implementing these policies. For more, see our Green Clean Schools site.
Employee wellness is a key part of creating a culture of health at school and is an area directly shaped by school district policy. Districts may adopt policies and programs to support employee wellness in combination with traditional health care benefits. For example, many districts create staff walking clubs or establish policies that the food served on professional development days meets health-promoting nutrition standards. In Chicago, HSC supports the district in adopting and implementing robust wellness policies, and directly engages teachers and principals in our Fit to Learn professional development program. See more in our Chicago focus on healthy classrooms.
Access related resources below, or go to our main Resource Center to access resources across all of our program and policy areas.
Healthy and Ready to Learn: Recommendations to the Next Administration
We can create a better future for our children and our nation by improving health in schools. The next President of the United States has the opportunity to support states, school districts and communities in creating the conditions of student health and wellness and giving all children a chance for a healthy, brighter tomorrow. This document outlines Healthy Schools Campaign’s recommendations to the next President for improving health and education for our nation's students.
School District Wellness Policies: Evaluating Progress and Potential for Improving Children’s Health Eight Years After the Federal Mandate
This report from Bridging the Gap updates data published in February 2013 and evaluates written school district wellness policies from school years 2006-07 through 2013-14, the first eight years following the required implementation date for the federal mandate. Using a nationally representative sample of school districts, this report provides details about the characteristics of these districts as well as the individual components of wellness policies and related provisions. New to this report are data that evaluate the comprehensiveness and strength of wellness policies across all policy categories based on district characteristic. In addition, this report continues to track detailed competitive food and beverage standards by location of sale during the school year immediately prior to the implementation of Smart Snacks. The major findings and trends presented identify areas where progress has been made in adopting and strengthening wellness policies, as well as opportunities for improvement.
Mapping the Early Attendance Gap
Attendance Works and the Healthy Schools Campaign are delighted to partner on the development, writing and release of Mapping the Early Attendance Gap: Charting a Course for Student Success. Our organizations share a deep commitment to ensuring that all children -- regardless of race or socioeconomic background – are able to show up for class, learn and thrive in a healthy school environment. September 2015
Health in Mind: Improving Education Through Wellness
Research documents what educators know: healthy students are better prepared to learn and succeed in school. Yet current health and education policy misses several simple, vital opportunities to boost academic success through health promotion and school wellness. We can create a better future for our children and our nation by improving health in schools.