MANKATO — Families living on a tight budget can face difficulties getting their children the dental care they need.
Even if they have insurance, a trip to the dentist’s office could pull the parent away from their job and the child out of class.
With those barriers in mind, dental professionals have been bringing free oral health care directly to area elementary schools in recent years.
Open Door Health Center dental hygienists came to Franklin Elementary Monday to apply sealant on students at risk of tooth decay. The health center receives funding for the services through the Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation’s Smile at School Program.
The program brings dental care directly to area schools, with a specific emphasis on addressing oral health disparities at schools with high rates of children receiving free or reduced-price lunches. More than 51 percent of Franklin Elementary students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches in 2017, well above the 38 percent state rate, according to Minnesota Department of Education statistics.
Joe Lally, executive director of the Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation, said many families living on low incomes wouldn’t otherwise have access to the care.
“The ideal is that every child gets to the dentist twice per year, but this is an effective measure of bringing needed care to kids that’s both strong prevention and a cost-saving measure,” he said.
Along with Open Door’s three professional staff applying the sealants, five Minnesota State University dental hygiene students screened the children beforehand. It helps the students learn to work with younger patients, said Lynnette Engeswick, professor of a community oral health class at MSU. One of her former students, Karie Seifert, now works at Open Door and helped apply the sealants Monday.
The in-school care provides a much needed oral health checkup for the children, Engeswick said, as good oral health at a young age can prevent lifelong health issues.
“We know that unsealed 6-year molars and 12-year molars if left will most commonly decay,” she said. “If you can intervene and get the seal on in time, in theory your population should be low decay.”
The children who are screened but don’t need any sealant still receive a fluoride varnish. Everyone gets a goody bag of toothbrushes, floss and other supplies, along with a note to bring home with any recommendations for follow-up care.
Xzavier Mata and William Stinke, both in fourth grade, chatted with friends and looked through their bags while waiting for their turn to receive the sealant in the school’s auditorium.
“I got a yellow timer, toothbrush and floss,” Stinke said. “I know how to use all this stuff.”
Brushing their teeth isn’t something they look forward to, but the two said they liked how they didn’t have to go to a dentist’s office for the care.
Apart from funding the care, Delta Dental’s program also tracks sealant needs of Minnesota children. The data they gather ends up being used in a state oral health statistics compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Parents signed their child up for the procedures, which are offered in the fall and spring at area elementary schools. Franklin Elementary’s school nurse, Angie Weir, said more and more parents sign up their children for the dental care each year as they become more familiar with the program.
“It’s so nice to have it right here because they don’t have to drive them anywhere,” she said. “They’re already here, so we just pull them out of class and it doesn’t count against their absences.”