Dr. Jasmin Whitfield joined the Joffe team in July as our Director of School Health Services. Her 20 years of experience in health has prepared her well for her current role, where she works with her team to ensure each of Joffe’s health services clients have the staff and supports they need to maintain student health and wellness.
Chris Joffe recently sat down with Jasmin to learn more about her perspective on the state of school health, where things are going next, and what challenges we might face along the way:
What do you see as the current state of affairs when it comes to school health?
It’s been challenging these last three years, to say the least! Most schools found themselves in a precarious position with less-than-adequate health support. But, to be honest, for many working in schools, specifically school nurses, it has always been a challenge to adequately meet the growing needs of their student population. Providing healthcare to students with acute and chronic health conditions, facilitating access to immunizations and oral health care, coordinating and providing vision and hearing screenings, mental health referrals, educating and training school staff, ensuring compliance with local and state health laws, etc is a full time job, even without the added complexities of the pandemic these past few years.
So, is it worse now than it was before Covid, or did the pandemic shed light on an ongoing issue we just didn’t see before?
I would argue that it’s a bit of both. School nursing has always been hard work (as I know from experience!) and our overall investment in school health services has been less than it should be. Covid really exacerbated the challenges that were already there, but brought up new ones, especially around health infrastructure and added compliance measures. Having health staff lead screenings for sick students, manage their care, and conduct contact tracing was just unsustainable in many ways. That’s actually a big part of what drove us to found our health coordinator program to begin with - to give school nurses support with testing, contact tracing, implementing mitigation strategies, etc. We knew, and we saw in real time, how much these added responsibilities were taxing health staff and wanted to help lighten that load.
Shifting gears — you talk a lot about a holistic approach to school health care. In your view, what does that look like?
It looks like a combination of things! To me, a holistic approach to school health care focuses not only on emergency response (responding to things like anaphylaxis and head injuries), but it also puts equal weight on health promotion and disease prevention. These are fundamental pieces of ensuring wellness, and we too often leave them out when talking about how to build effective school health systems. I’m vigilant about making sure these are part of the conversation. There is a connection between wellness and academic achievement. A holistic approach to school health should bridge health care and education through designing systems that modify or remove health related barriers to learning. This approach will allow students to develop and reach their full social, emotional, physical, spiritual and intellectual potential.
In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges on the horizon when it comes to school health?
The pandemic has demonstrated that there is more care needed for students in schools than ever before. School nurses are a vital resource for schools to address student health needs and unfortunately, we are seeing them overtaxed, burned out and experiencing inadequate staffing support. This is a huge, ongoing challenge that needs to be addressed. We’re also seeing that students have increased mental health challenges, which often leads to medical visits and referrals. And there has been an uptick in school-based violence this year. This not only adds further strain to health staff, it also increases anxiety among staff and students across campus, which has a compounding effect.
What can we do to address these challenges?
There’s some good news here because we know healthcare staff at schools can make a big impact on a student who is physically or emotionally suffering. They build a connection, offer support, and listen to what they’re struggling with. Because of this, school health teams can not only treat the physical side of health, but can also be part of the toolbox schools have to address mental health challenges. (Though they’re certainly not a replacement for counselors!). Additionally, there’s a lot of flexibility now in how to approach school health staffing. We’ve been supporting schools through our Joffe Health Coordinator program for years to provide health staff on campus, and now we’re also providing consultation and other resources to help schools create stronger, more effective, and more efficient health systems. We’re excited and I can’t wait to continue to work with our schools in 2023, and see all the great work they’re doing to keep their students healthy!