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Rural district starts program to offer students healthcare in schools

Many working families in the Oneida Special School District live more than an hour's drive from a pediatrician's office.

ONEIDA, Tenn. — On a rainy Thursday afternoon, the sound of fun during indoor recess at Oneida Elementary School conceal a growing issue in the school district — access to healthcare. 

Nearly 70 percent of students at the Oneida Special Schools district qualify for free or reduced lunch, and the district said 40 percent of the area it serves falls below the poverty line. 

That can mean working, and often single, parents struggle to find time and resources to travel to the nearest pediatrician office—often more than an hour's drive away. 

"Transportation barriers sometimes keep kids out of school longer and sometimes keep kids from getting the care they need," Coordinated School Health Director Melinda McCartt said. 

A pair of new programs are aiming to change that. 

In partnership with East Tennessee Children's Hospital, the district will soon offer telehealth services at each of its in-school clinics, meaning school nurses will be able to set appointments for students to receive more advanced medical care from Knoxville doctors using virtual tools. 

"Healthy students are better learners," McCartt said. 

A packet sent home to parents boasted that the doctors could examine and write prescriptions for ailments ranging from ear infections to scrapes and bruises.

And it's not just physical health. The district has also brought in a mental health counselor to serve its 1,300 students. 

"Currently, she has a full caseload. It has increased to at least 60 students," McCartt said. 

She said the programs are designed to remove barriers to care that can also hobble students' education—and expand services to a community in dire need.

"It makes it easier for the kids and it makes it easier for the parent," McCartt said. "So that students won't fall through the cracks."

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