Category Archives: School Health
A recently published research brief finds that six months after updated U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for healthier meals were implemented in public schools, elementary and high school students are buying—and eating—the healthier meals.
The brief published by Bridging the Gap, a national research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), shows that 70 percent of elementary school principals and school food directors said that students generally liked the healthier school lunches that began being served in the fall of 2012. Similarly, 70 percent of middle school students and 63 percent of high school students also like the meals. These are the first national studies to examine students’ reactions to the healthier meals.
“The updated meals standards are resulting in healthier meals for tens of millions of kids,” said Lindsey Turner, lead author of the elementary school study, and a co-investigator for Bridging the Gap. “Our studies show that kids are OK with these changes, and that there have not been widespread challenges with kids not buying or eating the meals.”
The survey responders were asked about students’ initial reaction to the meals in fall 2012, and how things were progressing a few months afterwards. Findings included:
- About half of the responders from elementary schools (56 percent) reported that students complained at first, but by spring 2013 64 percent of responders said few students were complaining.
- In middle schools, the percentage of students complaining dropped from 44 percent in fall 2012 to 11 percent in spring 2013. High schools saw similar declines, from 53 percent to 18 percent.
- Eighty-four percent of elementary school responders said approximately the same number of students (or more) were purchasing lunch this school year as did the previous year.
- Seventy percent of responders said middle-school students generally liked the new lunches, as did 63 percent of responders from high schools.
“The updated meal standards are a landmark achievement—they make schools healthier places for our nation’s children and are a critical step toward reversing the childhood obesity epidemic and building a Culture of Health nationwide,” said Tina Kauh, program officer at RWJF. “Policymakers at all levels should be encouraged by these findings and should continue to support schools’ efforts to provide students with healthy meals and snacks.”
NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Lindsey Turner about the study findings.
NewPublicHealth: News reports from about a year back seemed to indicate some kids were not happy with the healthier lunches. But your studies show that for the most part school lunches are being well-received.
Lindsey Turner: Many of those news stories were early on soon after the lunches had been changed. They’re also based on fairly small numbers of schools or case reports, and so one challenge with that is that it may not necessarily be representative of schools in general across the country. One of the strengths of our study is that we were able to get data from a fairly large number of schools from all across the country, which presents a little bit more of a balanced picture of what’s actually going on.
The American Heart Association (AHA) is working with dozens of state legislatures this year to develop laws that would add cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) classes to middle or high school curricula. Nineteen states require in-school training for high school students, and more are expected to consider or implement the training in the next few years. In Virginia, for example, Gwyneth’s Law—named for a little girl who went into cardiac arrest and died waiting for an ambulance with no one with CPR training able to step forward to try to help—goes into effect in two years and makes CPR mandatory for high school graduation, unless students are specifically exempted.
The AHA says that by graduating young adults with the knowledge to perform CPR—now taught as a hands-only skill, with no mouth-to-mouth resuscitation so as to keep the emphasis on chest compressions—they can vastly reduce the number of Americans, currently 420,000, who die of cardiac arrest outside a hospital each year. The numbers are highest among Latinos and African-Americans, according to the AHA, largely because too many members of those communities have not been taught CPR. AHA surveys find that people who live in lower-income, African-American neighborhoods are 50 percent less likely to have CPR performed.
New AHA grants are helping fund the training in underserved areas. A 2013 study in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes studied several underserved, high-risk neighborhoods to learn about CPR barriers. The researchers found that the biggest challenges for minorities in urban communities are cost (including child care and travel costs), fear and lack of information.
“Our continued research shows disparities exist in learning and performing CPR, and we are ready to move beyond documenting gaps to finding solutions to fix them,” said Dianne Atkins, MD, professor of Pediatrics at the University of Iowa. “School is a great equalizer, which is why CPR in schools is an integral part of the solution and will help increase bystander CPR across all communities and save more lives.”
The AHA has received funding from Ross, the national clothing store chain, for a program called CPR in Schools, which teaches hands-free CPR to seventh and eighth graders. As a way to increase training for minority students, AHA is partnering local Ross stores with nearby public schools where at least 50 percent of students receive free or reduced lunches.
- Read a NewPublicHealth story about a pilot kiosk CPR trainer to teach hands-free CPR in the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. The pilot program will expand to other locations in 2015.
- Watch hands-only CPR training videos from the American Heart Association. Tip: First learn to hum “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees. The beat is almost precisely the rhythm needed for effective CPR chest compressions.
With Classes Well Underway, It’s a Good Time for Colleges and Universities to Think about their Campus Tobacco Policies
Just a few weeks ago the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University announced that it had launched the Tobacco-Free Campus Initiative, which prohibits the use of any tobacco product—not just cigarettes—in all buildings, facilities and vehicles. The initiative also forbids e-cigarettes and discourages the use of tobacco products on all outdoor campus grounds. Organizers of the initiative say that deterring the use of tobacco in all forms is crucial to protect the health of the students and workforce of the campus community.
“By keeping out all tobacco products, the initiative ensures that the School doesn’t unintentionally encourage or reinforce tobacco addiction among students, faculty and staff,” according to a statement released by the school.
However, the rest of the university won’t be taking the same steps, at least for now. In 1991, all Johns Hopkins campuses followed the example first set by the School of Public Health in becoming smoke-free, said Dennis O’Shea, a spokesman for the university, adding that the “school could follow the new initiative, but no decision has been made.”
Hopkins is not the only college deliberating. While there are a few states that require state campuses to adopt smoke-free policies most campuses voluntarily adopt them, according to Cynthia Hallett, the executive director of Americans for Non-Smokers Rights (ANR). According to ANR, there are a little more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, and as of July 2014 there were 1,372 smoke-free campuses in the United States, of which 938 are 100 percent tobacco-free and 176 prohibit the use of e-cigarettes anywhere on campus. That’s up from 446 smoke-free campuses in 2010; reporting on tobacco-free campuses began in 2012, when there were 608.
Credit some of that change to the Tobacco-Free College Campus Initiative (TFCCI) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), launched two years ago to promote and support the adoption and implementation of tobacco-free policies at colleges and universities. TFCCI is a partnership of HHS, the American College Health Association and the University of Michigan, with sponsorship from the American Legacy Foundation.
While support for making campuses smoke- and even tobacco-free is growing, it’s hardly a slam dunk, especially when the move requires students to vote. Universities say opposition can come from foreign students who are sometimes more likely to smoke than their U.S. counterparts or contract employees who don’t want to be barred from smoking on campus. It can even come from the media. Two years ago, when UCLA announced its campus-wide tobacco free policy, the Los Angeles Times published an editorial titled “A Smoke Free UC Goes too Far” which said that “[s]moking is a detestable, dangerous habit—but it's also a legal one, and there is plenty to say in defense of allowing adults to make bad decisions if they're not breaking the law or harming others.”
Hoping to get the initiatives to pick up steam, TFCCI has launched challenges aimed at getting more campuses—and their students, faculty and employees—to give up their smokes.
- Read a NewPublicHealth interview with former HHS Assistant Secretary Howard Koh on the goals for Tobacco-Free College Campus Initiative.
- Download TFCCI resource toolkits on how to make campuses tobacco-free.
It’s no secret that kids perform better in school when they are healthy and feel motivated to learn. But not all kids have access to the quality health care that can help them get healthy, stay healthy or treat any chronic health conditions they have. That’s where school-based health centers come in.
School-based health centers are partnerships between schools and community health organizations. They help students get the preventive care they need—including flu shots, annual physicals, dental exams, vision exams and mental health counseling—right where they spend most of their daytime hours: On school grounds. There are currently more than 2,000 school-based health centers across the country. Besides removing barriers to health care that many families face, school-based health centers help reduce inappropriate visits to emergency departments by up to 57 percent, research has found. They also help lower Medicaid expenditures, decrease student absences from school and do a better job of getting students with mental health issues the services they need.
Moreover, with growing recognition that health disparities affect academic achievement, school-based health clinics help close the gap by providing crucial access to health care for students who might not otherwise get it. A study by researchers at the University of Washington, Seattle, found that high school students who used school-based health centers experienced greater academic improvements over the course of five semesters than students who didn’t use these centers; the effect was especially pronounced among those who took advantage of mental-health services. Another study found that high school students who were moderate users of school-based health centers had a 33 percent lower dropout rate in an urban setting that has a high dropout rate.
The exact services offered by these centers vary by community. At Santa Maria High School in Santa Maria, Calif., the health center’s offerings include crisis intervention sessions; a grief group for students dealing with loss; and ongoing opportunities for students to build important social skills and skills that will help them maintain a healthy lifestyle. In Oakland, Calif., the Native American Health Center offered at a middle school and a high school provides medical care, dental care, mental health services and a peer health education program in one setting. At the Maranacook Health Center in central Maine, kids can get support for chronic health problems (such as asthma, diabetes, or seizures), medications they need, counseling or other mental-health evaluations and services.
The ultimate goal behind these centers is for all children to enjoy and benefit from good health and school success.
“Children and adolescents are at the heart of the mission,” said John Schlitt, president of the School-Based Health Alliance, based in Washington, D.C. But the “scope of the health center’s influence extends beyond the clinic walls to the entire school, its inhabitants, climate, curriculum, and policies. The school is transformed as a hub for community health improvement.”
Most parents send their children off to school expecting they’ll have their minds enriched and expanded—they don’t expect that their kids’ health to be jeopardized.
But the reality is that the environmental conditions in aging or deteriorating school facilities can harm kids’ health and compromise their ability to learn. This is partly because children may be exposed to a variety of environmental hazards—such as lead, asbestos, molds, radon and volatile organic compounds—as well as toxic chemicals and pesticides at school. Half of U.S. schools have problems with indoor air quality, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and research suggests that the poorest children in the poorest neighborhoods have schools that are in the worst condition.
Sixty percent of kids suffer health and learning problems that stem from the conditions of their schools, according to the Coalition for Healthier Schools’ Towards Healthy Schools 2015 report. Children are especially vulnerable because they’re smaller; their organs are still developing; they spend more time on the ground; and they breathe more air and drink more water per pound of body weight than do adults, according to the EPA. They also may not be able to identify obvious hazards and move away from them.
Reducing environmental risks in schools offers significant payoffs in multiple domains. Improving indoor air quality can reduce asthma attacks by nearly 40 percent and upper respiratory infections by more than 50 percent, according to the 2006 report Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits. What’s more, a study weighing the costs and benefits of developing green schools for Washington State estimated a 15 percent reduction in absenteeism and a 5 percent increase in test scores, according to the Towards Healthy Schools 2015 report.
“A healthy school has a building that promotes health and learning—it will be clean, dry, and quiet. It will have good control of dust and particulate matter. It will provide good ventilation and good air quality,” said Claire Barnett, founder and executive director of the Healthy Schools Network Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to children’s environmental health and safety in schools. “This also assumes there’s no lead in the pipes, no PCBs in lighting or other old building materials, and no routine spraying of pesticides indoors or out. It shouldn’t be hard to have a building that meets these standards but it is. Parents shouldn’t take it for granted that a school facility is healthy.”
The start of the school year also means a return to team sports. There’s no question that playing a team sport provides clear benefits for kids, including the opportunity to develop physical fitness and other healthy habits, good sportsmanship, self-esteem and self-discipline. Kids who play sports are also less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as smoking or substance abuse.
But there is a potential dark side: An increased risk of sports-related injuries, with concussions at the top of the list of current concerns. Each year nearly 250,000 kids go to emergency departments for suspected sports-related concussions and there’s growing recognition that continuing to play with a concussion can lead to long-term effects on the brain, especially for kids. Girls also now have a higher rate of sports-related concussions than do boys, according to the Children’s Safety Network.
Because of all of these reasons there’s a major push underway to prevent concussions in all youth sports, not just in football, since concussions also commonly occur in girls’ and boys’ soccer, lacrosse, basketball and other sports, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. In May, the White House hosted the first-ever Healthy Kids & Safe Sports Concussion Summit to promote and expand research on sports-related concussions among kids and raise awareness of steps that can be taken to help prevent, identify and respond to concussions in young athletes.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) launched the Heads Up: Concussion in High School Sports initiative to help coaches, athletes and parents take steps to prevent concussions and respond appropriately if they occur. Among the prevention measures being introduced are modifications to protective gear (including new helmet technology for various sports), rule changes (such as limits on heading drills in soccer practices and tackling drills in football), identifying athletes who are at risk (by looking for genetic markers of risk) and educating everyone involved with youth sports about the dangers of concussions.
There are also stricter guidelines about when it’s appropriate for athletes to return to play after a concussion, based on their physical and cognitive symptoms; concussion history; and adherence to a step-by-step process for returning to the field or court. The CDC now recommends that coaches and parents consider whether their league or school should conduct baseline testing—a pre-season exam to assess an athlete’s balance and brain function—so that if a concussion is suspected to have occurred, the baseline results can help establish the extent of the head injury.
“Players, coaches and parents are demanding that we find a way to reduce concussion risk in sports,” said Michael Sims, head athletic trainer for football at Baylor University and a board member of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment. “But equipment can’t do it alone. It’s critical that safe play and return to play practices are enforced.”
With research indicating that fewer children are walking or biking to school than in decades past—and with the childhood obesity epidemic in full swing—health experts have been brainstorming solutions that would address both issues. In recent years, a simple but effective concept has been gaining traction at the grass-roots level: Why not organize a “Walking School Bus”—a group of kids who walk to school with one or more adults, so that kids can get exercise on their way to and from school?
A Walking School Bus is “just like a regular school bus, but without the walls and seats, and instead of wheels, we use our feet,” explained LeeAnne Fergason, education director for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Portland, Ore., which has a thriving Walking School Bus program. Other communities around the country that have well-established Walking School Bus programs include Chapel Hill, N.C.; Sacramento, Calif.; Burlington, Vt.; Columbia, Mo.; and Duluth, Ga. In the Fall of 2014, many more schools—including Grand View Elementary in Manhattan Beach, Calif.; Greenacres Elementary in Scarsdale, N.Y.; Madison Elementary in Redondo Beach, Calif.; and several elementary schools in Spokane, Wash.—will be joining the trend.
Created by the National Center for Safe Routes to School, these programs help kids sneak some extra physical activity into their day while also addressing parents’ concerns about getting their kids to school safely. It can be as simple as a few neighborhood families taking turns walking their kids to school. Or it can be more elaborate, with prearranged routes, timetables and stops along the way to pick up more “passengers”; with this model, there’s usually an adult “driver” at the front and an adult “conductor” bringing up the rear. A variation on this theme, the bicycle train, in which two or more adults accompany and supervise kids as they ride their bikes to school, has also become popular.
Viewed as a way to fight childhood obesity, improve school attendance rates and ensure that kids get to school safely, the Walking School Bus concept is garnering positive reviews from public health experts. In July 2013, Michelle Obama voiced her support of these programs in her remarks to mayors gathered at the White House.
“I've heard more and more of this kind of walking school bus happening all over the country—so that kids can get exercise on the way to school, kind of like we did when we were growing up," she said. “It’s about people all across this country coming together to take action to support the health of our kids.”
Besides providing an opportunity for movement, the Walking School Bus also allows kids to socialize with their peers, gain a bit of independence and learn important road safety skills. All of these benefits are also important for children’s health and wellbeing.
U.S. Surgeon General Issues ‘Call to Action’ Warning on Tanning and Skin Cancer
The U.S. Surgeon General has released the office’s first Call to Action on the dangers of tanning as it relates to skin cancer, which the Surgeon General called a “major public health problem.” The Call to Action is designed to increase awareness of skin cancer and presents five strategic goals to support its prevention:
- Increase opportunities for sun protection in outdoor settings
- Provide individuals with the information they need to make informed, healthy choices about ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure
- Promote policies that advance the national goal of preventing skin cancer
- Reduce harms from indoor tanning
- Strengthen research, surveillance, monitoring, and evaluation related to skin cancer prevention
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, with nearly 5 million people treated for all types combined annually at a cost of $8.1 billion. Melanoma is responsible for the most deaths and 90 percent of melanomas are estimated to be the result of UV exposure. Read more on cancer.
NIH, 23andMe Partner to Expand Researcher Access to Genetic Disease Data
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has entered into a $1.4 million, two-year deal with home genetics startup 23andMe to open up the company’s stores of genetic data to external researchers. The grant will enable the creation of survey tools and other methods to help researchers access information on thousands of diseases and traits for more than 400,000 people who have use 23andMe’s services. “23andMe is building a platform to connect researchers and consumers that will enable discoveries to happen faster,” said Anne Wojcicki, co-founder and CEO of 23andMe, in a release. “This grant from the NIH recognizes the ability of 23andMe to create a unique, web-based platform that engages consumers and enables researchers from around the world to make genetic discoveries.” Read more on research.
Study: Students Increasingly Accepting Healthier School Lunches
Despite initial pushback from students wary of revised school lunch policies implemented to provide heathier meals in 2012, a nationally representative sample of 557 U.S. public elementary schools found that approximately 70 percent of respondents said that students liked the new lunches by the second half of the school year. Researchers also found that school meal sales were up for disadvantaged students, who are more likely than their peers to experience a lack of proper nutrition. Read more on school health.
County Health Rankings & Roadmaps — Transforming Public Schools in Baltimore: Q&A with Robert English
Years of research shows that school facilities in poor condition—including faulty heating and cooling systems, poor indoor air quality, and deficient science labs—significantly reduce academic achievement and graduation rates. On the other hand, new and renovated school buildings that are equipped with modern science labs; art and music resources; and other amenities lead to improved educational outcomes. Research has also shown that when students attend high-quality schools they are more likely to be engaged in school and have higher attendance, test scores and graduation rates.
The public schools in Baltimore, Md., have the lowest graduation rates and oldest facilities in the state. A recent report described 85 percent of Baltimore’s 162 public school buildings as being in either poor or very poor condition.
While graduation rates in Baltimore public schools have increased significantly in recent years, thanks to better funding and other academic-focused efforts, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) aims to further improve the graduation rate, educational outcomes, overall health and economic prosperity of Baltimore residents. The goal is to integrate the rebuilding and renovation of every city school into the district’s education reform efforts. BUILD and its partners, ACLU of Maryland and Child First, want to change state and city policies to support school construction and renovation.
BUILD is the recipient of a County Health Rankings & Roadmaps community health grant to educate and engage parents, school leaders, and leaders from other sectors such as business, the community and faith leaders about the need for updated schools to get the best education outcomes for Baltimore’s students. NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Robert English, BUILD’s lead organizer, about the group’s recent successful efforts.
>>How healthy is your county? Join the live webcast event on March 26 to celebrate the launch of the 2014 County Health Rankings and to spotlight communities taking action to build a culture of health across America.
NPH: What’s the link between improving the school infrastructure and improving the graduation rates?
English: A leading indicator of students graduating from high school is that they feel safe and challenged in their schools. We’ve talked to thousands of students and families in Baltimore City and by the time students here in Baltimore get into the 9th grade and 10th grade, they have often lost interest in high school and many of them have said that it’s because of the facilities. We didn’t have science labs in many cases or other core components of a quality education to send kids to college.
This campaign is about building the 21st century learning environments that can prepare young people not only to graduate, but to go to college. For BUILD this is not a bricks-and-mortar campaign—this is about providing the educational space where every child has an opportunity to learn, and then secondly this is about bringing people together around creating high expectations for students. We’ve continued to organize in the schools that are in year one through year three of school construction, and the constituency we are building will be here to hold our schools accountable to providing real results.
For some kids, getting ready to head back to school takes more than a new backpack and a sharpened pencil. In an effort to reduce the deaths and harassment that some Chicago kids faced on their way to and from school, the city has enhanced a program called “Safe Passage,” which trains city workers to help children get to school safely. Last year there were 600 workers in the program, and this year that number has been doubled.
“The whole city is with you, shoulder to shoulder, doing our part to make sure every child in every neighborhood is safe on the way to and from school and has academic success once they get there,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a meeting with Safe Passage workers late last month.
The program currently serves 91 schools. Over the last two years crime on Safe Passage routes was down 20 percent and incidents among students were down 27 percent the schools.
Training for Safe Passage workers includes work on how to build relationships, anticipate issues before they occur and strategies for de-escalating situations. Training continues throughout the school year.
Stationing workers is actually part of a much larger strategy in Chicago for improving school safety, which has included trimming trees and removing weeds to make areas easier to see and safer; installing safe passage signs; removing graffiti; and repairing broken sidewalks and street lights. The city has also conducted community education training about the Safe Passage program. Parents along the Safe Passage routes got school specific information before the term began. See safe passage routes here.