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School board questions law on new student physicals

Should parents pay for a state required physical exam for new students entering a public school in Alaska? That was the question raised by a member of Petersburg’s School Board this summer. An attorney for the school district says state law makes that cost the responsibility of the school district, not parents, but notes no districts in the state are paying for exams. As a result, Petersburg’s board may seek a change in state law.

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Alaska statute requires each school district to “provide for and require a physical examination of every child attending school in the district.” The law requires that exam, for the most part to be performed by a physician, when the child enters school.

An opinion from attorney Allen Clendaniel this month says while no court has ruled on the issue, he thinks the law means the district is responsible for the cost of that exam.

However, Petersburg superintendent Rob Thomason told the board no schools in Alaska are shouldering that cost. “To make a long story short, there are 54 school districts in the state of Alaska, 53 of them have kindergarten, one of them does not, Mt. Edgecumbe,” Thomason said. “Of the 53 that do have kindergarten, not one district pays for the required health physical of a kindergartner. It is the attorney’s opinion based on the current language of the law that school districts should be paying for those or providing for them with a physician for the law.”

The attorney’s opinion noted the language has been in statute prior to statehood and the original 1953 territorial law even provided funding of two dollars and fifty cents per pupil to help pay for exams. That’s a long way from the cost of a checkup these days and was an issue for board member Sarah Holmgrain. She said she recently took her kid in for a physical but was reluctant to pay. “I dragged my heels because I kept waiting to hear what was gonna happen on this but now I gotta fork over 120 plus dollars to pay for this,” Holmgrain said. “And they didn’t do anything the school district doesn’t do already. They did a vision screening which I felt was mediocre at best. They didn’t do a hearing screening which they’re gonna do anyway. So to me its more thorough. Yeah, looked at his eyes, checked his height, which they do at the grade school. I just think it’s a waste of money for both the parent as well as the school district.”

Holmgrain was referring to health screening already performed by the nurse at the local elementary school. She did not want to require a separate physicians exam if it was not necessary. “Do we have any new students or incoming kindergartners that have not done it yet and what do we do now? Me personally I would be inclined to say, I don’t think we have a leg to stand on to make them require it, unless we turn around and reimburse them. And it’s whether we wanna go through that?”

Board members did not sound interested in having the district taking on the cost of exams. However, board chair Jean Ellis talked about the reason for the exams in the first place. “Well I think probably originally this was put in place to make sure no contagious diseases came into the school I would suspect that’s what that’s for. And that’s still a concern, you still don’t want not to have that happening.”

For some parents the cost of the exam is covered by insurance plans, including Medicaid and Denali Kid Care. Others are not covered under their plans after kids reach a certain age while others may be opting out of insurance.

Board member Dawn Ware was worried about setting a precedent if the district did cover the cost for anyone not getting an exam for their kid. And Board member Cheryl File thought of another solution. “It would be nice if our nurse could do it. If they could change it to where the school nurse could do it,” File suggested.

“That would be the easy answer,” responded Thomason. “For school districts that have nurses. Now you have some that don’t. They actually need a variety of options to get this requirement met. It might be a school nurse, it might be a community health nurse, it might be a village clinic.” Thomason asked for direction from the board, whether Petersburg schools should take over that cost, or seek a change in the state law.

Some districts in the state rely on a nurse to provide exams as a temporary measure if no physician is immediately available or if parents are not compliant. That’s according to Mary Bell, school health nurse consultant in the state’s Division of Public Health. “I actually hear from school districts quite a bit about this statute,” Bell said. “It definitely has some challenges. There were not regulations that were written. It’s an older statute, it’s been on the books for a while. So we’re aware of the challenges and we’re looking at clarifying some of them. So yes it is something we hear about quite frequently at the beginning of the school year in particular.”

Bell noted that there are numerous benefits for getting a checkup with a physician before starting school. “Actually it gives the parent an opportunity to talk about any kind of challenges the child might have entering school for the first time. Any barriers to learning can be identified. They can talk about any kind of accommodations the child might need for the classroom. It gives them a chance to talk about their development and growth and gives an opportunity to look at potential special needs the student might have.”

She said the exams can also include hearing and vision screenings and give parents a chance to learn about nutrition and exercise or get referrals to specialists if needed.

Petersburg’s board directed the superintendent to tackle the issue on three fronts. Those are coming up with a solution for any current students who have not completed a physical, seeking a possible change in state law during the upcoming legislative session and putting forth a resolution before the Alaska Association of School Boards.

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