Razel Suansing/Contributing Photographer

With New Haven public schools continuing to operate through remote education during the first 10 weeks of the fall semester, the Board of Education approved the opening of in-person health and dental clinics at local schools during the body’s Monday night meeting.

With seven votes in favor and one abstention, the board approved a motion to open 16 school-based clinics across New Haven. Sue Peters, New Haven Public Schools’ director of school health centers and dental clinics, sent a request to the board for clinics to see students in person during remote learning. The clinics’ services will operate on an appointment-only basis and will provide immunizations and preventative dental care. The board did not vote on an opening date for the clinics. At the meeting, Peters told the board about several reasons for the clinics to reopen, including their capacity to offer in-person care that telehealth cannot provide, annual student physical examinations and increased access to vaccinations among New Haven youth.

“Since the start of the pandemic, our health staff has been continuously seeing student caseloads through telehealth. This has proven extremely beneficial to our students and families who experienced stress during the shutdown and weren’t able to seek preventive care from many community-based agencies,” Peters said. “Telehealth is good for some things but many of our families still have problems accessing telehealth or don’t have the capability to access it.”

School health officials have expressed concern that the number of students using the district’s regularly offered health services has decreased during the pandemic. They have suggested that in-person clinics could help renew this access.

According to Peters, the limited care options available through telehealth merit the clinic openings. Without the clinics, the district finds it more difficult to provide immunizations and physical exams required for student enrollment. Peters said these requirements are necessary to reduce the risk to the school community from disease outbreaks.

While the district would usually begin to provide students with physical health examinations in September, it hopes to begin as soon as it can. Peters told the board that the district is confident that increasing access to physical health examinations better guarantees that returning students will be in good health if they return to in-person classes in the coming months.

Peters suggests that local neglect of immunization procedure — particularly with respect to the flu shot — could exacerbate the existing public health crisis. According to a New Haven Department of Public Health report, the sharp decline in local outpatient visits to pediatricians and the decrease in administered immunization doses suggest that New Haven youth are more vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases. Peters said that the district hopes its clinics will reduce the risk of respiratory illnesses during the upcoming influenza season.

The Center for Disease Control and the DPH have recommended that Americans get the flu shot before winter, as its peak usually occurs in this season, coinciding with the pandemic.

Community health partners — including the Yale New Haven Hospital, Fair Haven Community Health Center and Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center — have worked with the board since early August to plan the clinic reopenings. To ensure the safety of these clinics during the pandemic, Peters said the district worked to ensure the implementation of social distancing protocols. This has included rearranging waiting rooms to have lower capacity, providing personal protective equipment for all health providers and creating sparsely scheduled appointment times.

BOE member Darnell Goldson told his colleagues he approved of the safety protocols.

“I’m impressed that they are only letting in one client at a time, and there are 15-minute breaks between each student as they will be cleaning and disinfecting,” Goldson said.

BOE Member Dr. Tamiko Jackson-McArthur supported opening these clinics, noting their impact on her constituency.

“I know my people use these clinics, and they are lifelines,” Jackson-McArthur said.

The Board of Education voted to suspend in-person class for the first 10 weeks of school on Aug. 18, 2020.

Razel Suansing | razel.suansing@yale.edu