It’s a fairly simple concept – for children to succeed in school, they must be healthy enough to attend class. That’s why each September as our children return to school, states, schools, and parents must do everything they can to make sure that all uninsured school children, especially those who suffer from chronic conditions, are screened for eligibility in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).


Recent data reveals a stunning fact: poor health is affecting students’ ability to attend school and hindering their path to academic success. In recent years, policymakers have increased their focus on student absenteeism and its link to poor academic outcomes. Their goal is to identify the underlying causes and find ways to better address them. It’s clear from the data that students who suffer from chronic health issues miss the most school and have the lowest graduation rates.

Of those chronic health conditions, childhood asthma is one of the greatest contributors to absenteeism. According to the National Asthma Education and Prevention Program, students miss 14 million days of school every year due to asthma. Asthma is the most common chronic condition among school-aged children, affecting more than 6 million American children, or about 8 percent of our nation’s youth.

The good news is that children who are enrolled in coverage are likely to have a routine source of care and are able to keep their asthma in check. In nearly every instance, when a child is given the tools to manage their asthma, they are able to lead active and productive lives in the classroom and beyond.

So why are so many kids still missing school?

Proper asthma management requires a coordinated effort among families, medical providers, and schools. Evidence shows that for students with asthma or other chronic conditions to be healthy enough to attend school, they first need access to affordable and reliable health coverage. They need medications that stem the onset of symptoms, as well as support at home and in school to understand and adhere to their medication management plan.

Access to school health services is an essential piece of the absenteeism puzzle. While schools play a critical role to keep kids healthy, data suggests there’s more they can do. In January, the U.S. Departments of Education (DoE) and Health and Human Services (HHS) secretaries wrote a letter to State School Officers and State Health Officials urging them to take advantage of existing opportunities to screen and enroll eligible children into health coverage and to reimburse schools for the health services they provide.

Identifying uninsured students and providing assistance to connect them to public coverage in Medicaid and CHIP is an important opportunity for schools to improve student health and reduce absenteeism. Research confirms a strong association between health coverage and student success. For example, a 2014 study by the National Bureau of Economic Statistics found that when children gained access to Medicaid they were more likely to do better in school, miss fewer school days, finish high school, graduate from college and earn more as adults.

As our nation’s children get back to school, we owe it to our students, especially those who are affected by asthma and those with other chronic health conditions, to take advantage of every opportunity to break down the barriers holding back their futures. Now is the time for schools and states to get off the sidelines.

Lisa Shapiro is Vice President for Health Policy at First Focus, a nonpartisan child advocacy organization, and a convener of the Childhood Asthma Leadership Coalition, a multi-sector coalition of asthma stakeholders dedicated to raising awareness and improving public policy to reduce the burdens of childhood asthma.