Education outcomes are strongly correlated to health outcomes, and if Kansas wants to improve either, school and health officials should continue to work together at the local level to find ways to tie programs together, a panel of leaders in both fields said Tuesday.
The Kansas Health Institute, in partnership with the Kansas Department of Education and Department of Health and Environment, hosted a virtual discussion Tuesday morning where state education and health officials gave examples and ideas for communities to improve Kansans’ lives. Speakers included Gov. Laura Kelly, Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers, state commissioner of education Randy Watson and Dr. Lee Norman, KDHE secretary.
Kelly also said some of her initiatives to expand broadband access across the state ultimately help both students with access to coursework and materials and make it possible for patients to use telemedicine health options.
"We know that educational opportunities and health outcomes are closely connected," Kelly said. "From Day 1, my administration has worked closely to ensure that teachers have the support they need to help students succeed."
Watson said the pandemic has only shown the benefit of the close relationships Kansas school districts have had with their local health departments. In crafting the Kansas State Department of Education’s school reopening guidance, Watson said, hundreds of physicians, doctors and nurses provided input.
And as some districts look to move from online or hybrid learning to fully on-site learning, they are relying on health data from smaller districts that have already attempted that transition, as well as guidance from their local health departments.
"We know, by what the medical experts tell us, that we’re going to be with the virus for the remainder of this school year, to some extent," he said.
Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of Topeka Unified School District 501, said large, urban districts like hers have to pay close attention to the health of their students as they consider serving the "whole child." When families enroll, the district screens students for potential mental health issues to find and provide them support.
Both education and health outcomes are also closely tied to other variables in students’ lives, such as their socioeconomic status. Even as schools work with limited resources, it is imperative that they find ways to help families who may have even fewer resources, and since Anderson arrived at the district, USD 501 has installed laundry machines at 18 schools. More than 70% of the district’s students are on free/reduced lunch status as well, she said.
Discussion attendees also heard from Teal Van Lanen, director of improvement and community engagement for the Algoma School District in Wisconsin. The district won the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2017 Culture of Health award for building health equity in the community.
VanLanen said her district worked closely with other community agencies to build programs where high school students help out and participate in discussions about community health.