School-based health centers can deliver care to vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic

Publication Date:

March 18, 2020



School-based health centers provide primary and preventative health care, chronic disease management, dental care, and mental health services to over 6 million students in over 10,000 schools in the United States. Unfortunately, as school closures spread across the United States due to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), students could miss out on these needed services.

School districts that have already (or plan to) shut down should coordinate with their school-based health center’s sponsoring agency to understand how students will be affected and learn how to best serve students when school is not in session. Districts that remain open can take steps to ensure that students are served in the event of a closing.

School-based health centers are typically operated by community-based sponsoring agencies, such as federally qualified health centers, hospitals, or health departments. While most of these health centers only allow students and school staff to access services, some also serve the broader community. And because school-based health centers are located within schools, if schools close, so do the centers.

Furthermore, school-based health centers disproportionately reach low-income students and those living in rural areas. Health care deserts are common in these areas, particularly for children, and the closure of school-based health centers could be especially detrimental to these students. For many, such services represent their only access to health care—at a time when they may need care the most.

For school districts that have closed, the following recommendations may further support the health and well-being of students:

  • Coordinate with health center providers and administrators to ensure that children with physical and mental health needs can access appropriate services. Access to health care may be via a school-based health center, other resources in the community, or online.
  • Communicate with parents and students about how to access health care services, particularly in isolated areas that lack an accessible clinic. This may involve using messaging systems, such as texts or emails, and other district resources to communicate ways to access telehealth or related services.
  • Consider permitting school-based health centers to remain open if schools themselves are minimally staffed.
  • Allow school-based health centers to pivot to a telehealth model and communicate the new protocols and procedures with students and staff.
  • Because of HIPAA regulations, health center staff will need to reach out to students and families who use the center regarding alternative health care options.