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California’s unprecedented investment in students’ health and wellbeing got a little boost from the federal government this week, as AmeriCorps announced it would dispatch dozens of public health volunteers into schools and communities.
Five organizations in California, including several that work in schools, are part of the first wave of a new AmeriCorps grant program intended to boost public health among children and families, especially those who have been hard hit by the pandemic.
The program, a joint effort with the Centers for Disease Control, will give out $400 million in grants over five years nationwide. In California, the program will disperse at least $5 million this year with more expected in the future. Organizations will use the grant money to place AmeriCorps volunteers in schools and other locations where they can help families get Covid vaccines, tests and treatment; find mental health counseling; and connect to other local health resources.
“There’s an urgent need for public health support right now, and schools are on the front lines,” said Michael Smith, chief executive of AmeriCorps, the federal volunteer agency, who was in Oakland Tuesday to promote the new program. “Connecting schools and public health is a natural fit.”
The goal is to improve public health overall but especially in communities that have been hard hit by Covid. Low-income, Black and Latino communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, suffering greater health impacts as well as economic repercussions.
The program is also intended to lure more workers to the public health field, which the CDC determined was woefully understaffed when the pandemic struck. Ideally, Smith said, the grant program will help prepare thousands of future nurses, doctors, epidemiologists, researchers and others interested in the field.
In Alameda County, a nonprofit called Safe Passages will place 15 AmeriCorps volunteers in schools in Oakland, Hayward and Union City. Those volunteers will work directly with families, go to health fairs and other events, meet with students and parents at school and call families to help them get vaccinated, among other tasks.
“Schools are at the center of the community,” said Josefina Alvarado Mena, chief executive of Safe Passages. “Co-locating health services at a school makes sense because that’s where the kids and families are. If kids aren’t healthy, they can’t learn. If parents aren’t healthy, they can’t work. It’s all connected.”
The AmeriCorps investment comes amid a broad surge of support for health services located on school campuses. The new state budget includes $1.1 billion for community schools, which offer on-campus health care, mental health services and other amenities for students as well as families. In addition, since the pandemic schools around the state have opened “wellness centers,” rooms where students can relax, meditate, see counselors, do yoga, get peer counseling and otherwise tend to their mental health. Districts also have extra funding to hire more counselors, psychologists and social workers; partner with local nonprofits that offer health services; streamline the process to bill Medi-Cal for health services; and invest in social-emotional learning in the classroom.
About half the schools in Oakland Unified are community schools. Adding AmeriCorps volunteers will help expand the services that are already available, said Leroy Gaines, one of the district’s network superintendents.
“Right now, schools are doing everything. We’re providing education, food, social-emotional learning, health care … If we fail, everyone fails,” Gaines said. “We need as much support as possible. To get this kind of opportunity is really powerful.”
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