School health clinic proposal getting mixed reaction

by: Mike Petchenik Updated:

Leaders at Lake Forest Elementary School proposed the idea after a survey of parents and students found nearly 77 percent reported barriers to proper healthcare.

SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. - A plan to open a health clinic at a Sandy Springs elementary school is catching heat from some Fulton County school board members.

Leaders at Lake Forest Elementary School proposed the idea after a survey of parents and students found nearly 77 percent reported barriers to proper healthcare.

The principal noted that a large number of students didn't have proper immunizations. Of the school's 920 students, officials said 98 percent receive free or reduced lunch, an indicator of poverty.

"Since many of our students lack adequate health services, many spend more time away from school than we see in other schools," Principal Harvey Oaxaca told the school board at a Feb. 12 work session. "An operational health center on site would allow that sick student (to) be in a better position to come back quicker and healthier to our school."

The proposed center would be funded by donations from several groups, including Healthcare of Georgia Foundation and Emory's Urban School Health Program and would be modeled after a similar program in the Atlanta Public School system.

Dr. Jada Moore-Ruffin is medical director of the three APS clinics, including one at Whitefoord Elementary school in Southeast Atlanta's Edgewood community.

"We remove that barrier of access. Because we're here in the school they can get to us quickly, it's convenient and they're comfortable here," Moore-Ruffin told Channel 2's Mike Petchenik. "It's a resource to the community."

Moore-Ruffin told Petchenik her clinics serve about 2,000 patients a year, including some who don't attend any of the schools served.

She said it costs about $1.2 million a year to operate the three clinics with the help of federal grants, private donations and insurance reimbursements.

Moore-Ruffin said about 95 percent of the patients don't have private insurance, but qualify for assistance such as Medicaid.

"We reduce absenteeism, reduce time lost in instruction," Moore-Ruffin said. "We've been well-received."

But, the idea for the clinic was not well-received by some Fulton County school board members, who raised concerns about the security of opening a clinic on campus.

"How is our staff going to handle the increased volume of parents bringing sick children in, not to mention where do you put the sick children?" asked Linda McCain. "You're mixing them with our healthy children."

Board member Katie Reeves said she was "shocked" staff would ever consider such a program.

"We're, on purpose, looking to expose our children to an additional level of danger," she said. "What are we thinking? Everyone wants to do good things, but what are we thinking?"

Area Superintendent Karen Cox said the one-year pilot program would only be open to current Lake Forest students and would not be open to the general public. She plans to reintroduce the proposal to the school board in March.

Moore-Ruffin told Petchenik in 18 years, the Whitefoord Elementary clinic has not had any safety issues.

"We use buzzer system so our staff can see who is at the door ready to be buzzed in," she said, adding that Fulton County should give the program a shot. "The buy-in and engagement from the community from the very beginning makes this a valuable resource."

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