Home | School-Based Health Centers in Minnesota During the Pandemic: Anchors of Stability and Vital Bridges to Reach Children, Youth and Families

School-Based Health Centers in Minnesota During the Pandemic: Anchors of Stability and Vital Bridges to Reach Children, Youth and Families

March 10, 2021

Janna Gewirtz O’Brien, MD, FAAP

Abbe Penziner-Bokde, MD, FAAP

Since the early 1970s, and among the first in the nation, school-based health centers in Minnesota have been embedded within schools as a way to meet the healthcare needs of school-aged children who may otherwise be underserved by traditional models of office-based healthcare.  They have been, and continue to be, a literal and figurative home team, a whole-health advantage for thousands of Minnesota students each year, and are uniquely positioned to intentionally disrupt known systemic inequities in both the health and educational realms.

In short, a school-based or school-linked healthcare center is a federally recognized, evidence-based safety net model of healthcare that by design integrates primary care and mental healthcare into a “one-stop” hub located where children and youth spend the majority of their waking hours: in school. No one is turned away for inability to pay, and fees are not transferred to students or their families.



The Minnesota School-Based Health Alliance (MNSBHA) is the collective voice of school-based health centers across the state. Here in Minnesota, they are present in 25 distinct locations, with seven sponsoring organizations and growing.


Sponsoring organizations:

9 in Minneapolis high schools 

Minneapolis Health Department

9 in St. Paul high schools, with one middle school/HS program and 1 parenting teen and infant/child program Northpoint Health and Wellness
6 suburban programs in Brooklyn Center, St. Louis Park, Richfield, Burnsville, Bloomington and White Bear Lake Minnesota Community Care

1 in Rochester Alternative Learning Center

Park Nicollet Foundation
Minnesota State University, Mankato
Mayo Clinic
St. Catherine University

Below, the MNSBHA shares how school-based health centers have innovated and adapted to reach and support students during the pandemic and the recent social upheaval in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. 

Expanding Outreach

“When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, in addition to rolling out telehealth for medical, mental health, nutrition and health education visits, we also knew that we needed to meet students where they were physically,” said Shawna Hedlund, president of the MNSBHA. Barbara Kyle, manager of Minneapolis Health Department’s school-based program shares, “We developed protocols to keep our students and staff safe, while still maintaining face-to-face connections when needed. To overcome transportation barriers, when students called Minneapolis clinics needing time-sensitive medicines (e.g. emergency contraception, SSRI refills and asthma inhalers), clinicians would do a brief telehealth visit and then bring it to them at home or in their communities. We even met students at fast food restaurants, if that was most convenient for them.”

Partnering with Schools

Building on our long-standing relationships with school partners, we coordinated events, like STI Testing Days, in parallel with times when students were most likely to be present (e.g. food and textbook pick-ups and sports practices).  We have also added information to school and district-wide print, digital communications and social media to update students and families about available services despite school closures. 

Keeping Kids Vaccinated

At a time when vaccination rates are falling nationwide, Minnesota school-based health centers have been offering vaccination clinics and doing vaccine catch-up in clinics and classrooms. A new school-based clinic in White Bear Lake, sponsored by St. Catherine University, hosted a large influenza vaccination clinic this past fall.  

Supporting Families

We also recognized that many of our families were struggling, and continued our work to help them maintain health insurance coverage and to access basic resources like food and housing.  Health Commons at Pond in Bloomington Schools screen students for social determinants of health at each visit and have partnered with Hunger Solutions to address food insecurity.

MNSBHA is working with stakeholders such as the Minnesota  Department of Health, the Minnesota Department of Education and the Department of Human Services, as well as school districts, health care providers and public policymakers to strategize on strengthening and expanding this equity model for children in Minnesota. Learn more about school-based health centers and advancing school health in your community at

About the Authors

Janna Gewirtz O’Brien, MD, FAAP, is an adolescent medicine fellow at the University of Minnesota Department of Pediatrics. Abbe Penziner-Bokde, MD, FAAP, is a pediatrician with Allina Health and Minnesota Community Care. 

Annual Sponsors