When students are unwell — whether they have a run-of-the-mill cold, a chronic illness, or a mental health condition like depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — it is more difficult for them to learn. Many more students face chronic physical and mental health challenges than in years past, making this a vital area about which education reporters should learn.
Student health encompasses a wide range of issues that include physical and mental health diseases, the consequences of risky sexual behavior, food and housing insecurity, and the effects of personal and community violence. Layered over these issues are the health threats that loom large from the spread of the coronavirus in communities, child care facilities, and schools.
These concerns have an effect from preschool classrooms to university lecture halls and dorms, and, in many cases, disproportionately harm Black and Hispanic students who are more likely than their white counterparts to experience chronic illnesses, sexually transmitted diseases and community violence.
The leading chronic physical illnesses for students are asthma, diabetes and obesity. One out of 12 school children has asthma; childhood obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s to one in five school-aged children. And about 187,000 U.S. children and adolescents have diabetes.
Access to school nurses is essential in helping to manage these and other conditions, and to avoid emergency room visits and lost days of school. Yet many schools don’t have a nurse on campus every day. A lack of funding has created a shortage of school nurses as districts struggle to come up with money to hire them. And when they do, salaries for school nurses are often lower than for nurses working in other settings. Though the National Association of School Nurses has lobbied for dedicated federal funding for nurses in schools, the majority are funded through regular and special education funding. One-quarter of schools nationally do not have a nurse, either full- or part-time.
Other major threats to student health and safety are suicide, which increased 56% between 2007 and 2017 among those ages 10-24, and other forms of violence, which can have long-lasting mental health effects for victims and witnesses. In addition, about 20% of U.S. students reported being bullied, with many encountering it online or via text. Hunger and homelessness remain major problems for college students and among students in the pre-K-12 system.
The following information will help journalists find reliable data and understand more about the health issues facing students at all levels.
Updated March 2021