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New facility at Mary Morrisson Elementary School provides medical, mental health care where students are

The Day - 1/1/2020

Jan. 1--GROTON -- Mary Morrisson Elementary School now will provide students access to health care where they spend most of their time.

A health center, run by the Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut, is a new resource within the school building that works in conjunction with students' community providers, the school nurse and school staff to ensure that kids are healthy, in school and learning, said Erin Patterson Janicek, senior director of clinical services for Child & Family Agency.

"I think it will be an extraordinary addition to our school and to our families," Principal Kathleen Miner said. She added that it will be a great resource for military students, who comprise about 65 percent of the school's population, as well as other students.

The school-based health center, which opened in December, has a nurse practitioner available for physical examinations and other medical appointments that kids need but families, including military families, tend to have a hard time scheduling, Superintendent Michael Graner said. The center also has a mental health clinician to help students who may need the service.

Students can access the school-based health center for physical examinations, immunizations, when they are sick, for prescriptions (but not for controlled substances) and for management of conditions such as asthma, according to a list provided by the agency. The nurse practitioner can collaborate with the student's primary care provider, or refer the child to that provider.

The mental health clinic is intended to mirror an outpatient clinic, said Mary Morrisson mental health clinician Alexandra Garvey, licensed master social worker. Services include counseling for individual children, small groups and families; crisis interventions; assessments, diagnoses and planning for treatment; mental health education; and referrals, according to the list.

An office was converted to house the medical clinic, where the nurse practitioner provides care, and a portable classroom was set up for the mental health clinician's office.

Access to health care

Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut runs 14 school-based health centers, which are located in Groton, New London, Stonington and Waterford. School-based health centers can help reduce barriers to accessing health care, including transportation issues, long wait times, hours that don't work with individuals' schedules, or inadequate insurance, the Child & Family Agency said in its 2018 Impact Report.

School-based health centers can lead to children taking fewer sick days and having to miss fewer school days for medical appointments. They also help parents ensure their children get health care "without missing work time and wages," and by providing a place to get physicals, ensure children don't have issues entering school on time, the report states.

The health centers bill insurance companies but families pay no out-of-pocket costs, according to Child & Family Agency.

Janicek also noted that the centers also help families save on medical costs, as they have to make fewer Emergency Room visits, also creating less of a burden for the state. She said state funding for the center is $125,000 per year.

The state's biennial budget this year provided funding to the Child & Family Agency for the center, according to a news release from state Reps. Christine Conley and Joe de la Cruz, both D-Groton, who also had proposed a bill for the center.

Conley said she worked with de la Cruz on getting state funding for the center, after hearing from Navy families who described how when they moved into a new town, it may take some time to transfer medical records or find a pediatrician.

While not replacing a primary care provider, a center can help make it easier for families to get medical care, especially for a moving population with busy families, she said. Families appreciate not having to take off a whole day or half-day from work for more minor medical issues.

De la Cruz called the health center a "step in the right direction" and said early detection, on anything as simple as a cold, is beneficial.

"I think it's going to be one more tool that we have to help parents and the community with their health care," he added.

State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, who had pushed for a bill she proposed for the center, said she's a huge advocate of school-based health centers, especially for Mary Morrisson, which has a high percentage of military families. She said the centers provide care right where students need it.

A resource within the school

School-based health center nurse practitioner Emma Hodges said that she spends time during medical visits talking with the kids and helping them -- even though they are young -- navigate their own health care and become more fluent in describing their symptoms. She also speaks to parents about what happened during the medical visit, and collaborates with pediatricians, with every child encouraged to have a provider.

If a child or parent doesn't speak English, a language line is available so Hodges can communicate with them with interpreters.

Staff at school-based health centers also do preventative care and follow up on issues "day in and day out," Janicek said. She said research has shown school-based health centers make a big difference in terms of kids with asthma being able to stay in school more often.

Center staff performs mental health screenings at every physical and every time there is a concern, but the centers are moving toward mental health screenings at every visit, a trend in the larger medical field, Janicek said.

Through the center, teachers can learn more about mental health and how that impacts learning, Janicek pointed out.

"We become definitely a resource within the building, not just for the students but also for the teachers and helping them learn about different pieces of mental health that impact kids' availability to learn," Janicek said.

All of the schools in Groton with health centers also offer cognitive behavioral interventions for older children, and a Bounce Back program for elementary students, who are dealing with trauma. Through those programs, children work in groups to "build skills to manage trauma symptoms" and report feeling less alone, according to the agency.

In Groton, the agency's health centers are located at Claude Chester Elementary School and Catherine Kolnaski STEAM Elementary School, both Cutler Arts and Humanities Magnet Middle School and West Side STEM Magnet Middle School -- with the plan to consolidate those two into a larger center at the new consolidated middle school when it opens -- and Robert E. Fitch High School, Janicek said.

When Claude Chester and Mary Morrisson close, along with S.B. Butler Elementary School, and two new elementary schools open in Sept. 2021, the plan is to merge the school-based health center at Mary Morrisson into one of the new elementary schools, and merge the Claude Chester center into the other new school, Janicek said.

"This is going to be a wonderful asset to our school system to support the children and their families," Graner said of the new center.

k.drelich@theday.com

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