Superintendent James Tager is pictured in his office in this March 2022 file photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The Bangor School Department is considering establishing a health clinic in a middle school one year after a Penobscot Community Health Care clinic at the high school proved to be “wildly successful.”

Some 50 Bangor High School students access weekly mental health appointments at the in-school clinic, which opened in February 2022, and another 20 sit on the clinic’s waitlist, according to Superintendent James Tager.

The clinic provides another outlet for students to receive mental and physical health support at a time when roughly 50 Bangor students are on waitlists that last anywhere from six weeks to six months to receive mental health services from community providers, Tager said.

“The clinic gives people immediate access to the care they need, whether that’s physical or mental health,” Tager said. “Schools have changed and if we can create those solutions for students, why wouldn’t we?”

After seeing how many students use the resource and how many more are waiting for help, Tager said the department is interested in adding a clinic to one of the department’s two middle schools, but that will take buy-in from PCHC and funding to renovate a clinic space in the school.

student mental health challenges

“The clinic has been wildly successful because of the fact that we have a need,” he said. “If that need is present at the high school level, where else is that need? I think the logical next step would be middle school.”

In addition to mental health counseling, the clinic can administer immunizations, test for common illnesses like strep throat and ear infections and complete sports physicals students need to participate in some extracurricular activities.

“I love the idea of school-based clinics,” Bangor City Councilor Gretchen Schaefer, who has a child in a Bangor middle school, said. “If your throat is sore and you’re someone who doesn’t have access to a primary care provider and your mom can’t take you to walk-in care, but you can go to school and get a strep test, that’s a huge key that would also help on the truancy side.”

The existing clinic in the high school cost about $300,000 to renovate and a PCHC grant funds the clinic’s three providers, Tager said.

The option to access mental and physical health care at school, especially when those resources are difficult to come by in the community, also helps decrease the department’s truancy rate, which grew during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tager said.

“We have a number of students who, during the COVID pandemic, weren’t at school as often, and for good reasons,” Tager said. “We got into habits where students weren’t coming to school. If we don’t attack the chronic absenteeism in pre-K and kindergarten now, it’s going to be a continuing issue.”

bangor schools safety plans

Approximately 24 percent of Downeast School pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students are considered “chronically absent,” with more than 18 absences. Another 29 percent of the school’s pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students have between 13 and 17 absences, according to Tager.

In addition to giving students another health care resource, Christina Babin, director of pupil services, said the in-school clinic removes barriers to care for families.

“When parents have to take time off work to bring students to appointments, it doubles the amount of time students are out of school,” Babin said. “It also takes away barriers for students who don’t have a primary care physician or health insurance to get their sports physical so they have access to extracurricular activities.”

The clinic can be especially helpful for families who are new to Bangor and struggling to connect with health care providers, Bangor schools spokesperson Ray Phinney said.

The school clinic operates like any other PCHC facility. The clinic accepts all insurances, including MaineCare, but students don’t need to be insured to receive care. The agency has a sliding-scale fee structure for those who are uninsured, and nobody is turned away if they cannot pay.

The clinic is expected to be open five days a week this summer to meet the rising number of students who need care and to continue receiving the care they need regularly, Babin said.

student safety at bangor schools

In addition to bringing a PCHC health clinic to a middle school, Tager said the department is also exploring reopening the PCHC dental clinic that was established in Downeast Elementary School in 2016, but shuttered during the pandemic.

The clinic’s licensed dentist and registered dental hygienist from PCHC offered students in-school preventive care, such as cleanings and x-rays, and basic restorative care including fillings and extractions.

“That was a great way to get your teeth cleaned in your school — it seemed like a great thing, especially in a school that’s in an underserved area,” Schaefer said.

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Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...