The West High School Clinic opened on Feb. 26, and already, it has served 100 students.

The clinic, a collaborative effort among University of Utah Health, the Salt Lake City School District and the Salt Lake Education Foundation, offers physical and mental health care services on the school campus.

It is believed to be the first school-based clinic at a Utah high school.

Not only is the health center a boon to students’ health care access, educators are hopeful it will also curb school absences due to illness, injury or mental illness.

“When we just announced the number that this clinic has already served, 100 students, that meant that 100 students were able to miss a class but not a full day of school or a half day to go to a health care setting. That meant 100 families didn’t have to take time off of work to make sure their child got health care. It’s right here in their backyards, right next to their classrooms so it’s going to make a huge difference that way,” said Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Elizabeth Grant.

Parental consent is required for a student to receive care at the clinic. The clinic asks for insurance information but uninsured students can access care. No child is denied services for inability to pay.

Dr. Jeff Robison, vice chairman of community and global engagement in University Health’s Department of Pediatrics, said while new to Utah, “this is a model that has been used in other parts of the country.”

The clinic is staffed by University Health pediatricians, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers as well as nurses and support staff. The clinic will also provide training opportunities for medical residents, he said.

“The idea to practice medicine in an integrated way between the physical health and the mental health is particularly important for adolescents. That’s why this clinic, in particular, is innovative because it meets adolescents where they are physically and it meets them where they are in their life as well,” said Robinson, who specializes in pediatric emergency medicine.

“Having it located in a school or a place where they are already at really decreases the barriers for them to access that care. That’s the idea here,” he said during the clinic’s grand opening on Wednesday.

West High Principal Jared Wright said he could not “overstate how beneficial it is for our students to be able to access health care in their school and during school. This is especially true for many of our vulnerable students, who only have time during the day to access care. Instead of referring them off campus, we can take care of them at school, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will get this much-needed care.”

To start, the clinic will limit patients to West High students but there are plans to extend its reach by busing students from the district’s other high schools to the health center.

Educators across the country have been attempting to address increasing rates of chronic absenteeism as the nation has emerged from the pandemic.

The reasons students are chronically absent from school are complex, but health, household incomes and whether a student has a disability all play a role.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, nearly 6% of children ages 5‒17 experienced chronic school absenteeism for health-related reasons in the past 12 months in 2022.

Rates of chronic absences were more prevalent among girls than boys across all age groups — 6% compared to 5.5%, which researchers said was not a significant difference. However, chronic absences were highest among teens 14-17, compared to younger students ages 5-13, according to the federal data.

The Education Department defines chronic absenteeism as missing 15 days of school or more.

Deputy State Superintendent of Student Achievement Patty Norman, in an earlier interview, said Utah does not collect data that specifies why a student is not in attendance, rather if the absence was excused or not excused.

But when rates of chronic absences climbed to 27% post-pandemic, educators, lawmakers, the state school board and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson were asking the same question, “What can we do about absenteeism?”

It’s a frequent plea of teachers, as well, Norman said. “They say ‘I can’t teach kids if they don’t show up,’” she said.

It’s not a question with a simple answer. But the consequences of chronic absences are well documented. Chronic school absenteeism can lead to poorer academic performance and school engagement for students. It is also a risk factor for dropping out of school.

Some school are incentivizing students with rewards if improve their personal and schoolwide attendance. The principals of two Granite School District schools participated in a high-stakes wager that their respective schools could do more to improve attendance. The friendly bet involved the lower-performing school’s principal either having his beard shaved off in an all-school assembly or the other, being doused in pink slime in front of her students.

Other schools have leaned into community resources to help address issues such as hunger and access to health care, Norman said.

“The fact is, if you’re not not receiving proper nutrition, and proper health care, then you don’t attend school. If you don’t attend school, you’re more likely to drop out and so these factors really do correlate to each other across the board,” she said.

But some parents say “absolutely not. That’s not the role of school. That shouldn’t happen,” Norman said.

“It’s a tough one.”

Grant said no child receives services at the West High School Clinic without the consent of their parents. “This isn’t without parental knowledge. We’re really careful about that,” she said.