A state mandate that requires new public school students to have a dental exam before they enroll is an example of the right idea with inadequate follow-up.
All children need excellent dental care. That’s a given. And for whatever reason — lack of funds, no dental insurance, parents who are too busy, lack of providers, even flat-out neglect — many children do not receive the yearly checkups and cleanings that help maintain tooth health. That matters. The New Mexico Dental Therapist Coalition estimates perhaps a quarter of elementary school students have untreated tooth decay.
Past research has linked school performance and the quality of oral health care — kids with untreated cavities miss more school. As a result, they do worse in academics. More research is needed to determine whether problems with teeth cause the poor outcomes or whether they simply coexist.
Whatever the link, no child should have to go to school with an aching tooth. Mandating dental exams isn’t necessarily the wrong approach; it’s a way to find the kids who are fidgeting in pain and need treatment. A public school is the place where children are.
However, the Legislature passed the dental exam requirement back in 2019 as part of a larger bill, and no appropriations accompanied the mandate to help pay for these required dental exams.
Now, Santa Fe Public Schools has implemented its own policy so the district complies with the rule, which goes into effect July 1. Despite the requirement, there’s no worry any student will be denied education for lack of a dental exam because the policy states no student will be denied enrollment because of a lack of dental insurance or an inability to pay for an exam.
For students who lack the required dental examination before enrolling, parents or guardians must sign a waiver indicating they understand the risks associated with the lack of dental care.
It’s a lot of paperwork, right? Yes, but collecting data is an important way to find out what children need. How many students aren’t getting regular exams? Once they are examined, what sorts of problems do they have? What current programs exist to treat children, and are they enough?
District officials say they are reaching out to the broader community for help finding resources to help children who need dental care but lack insurance and money. And, as school board member Lorraine Price pointed out at a recent meeting, the teeth of poor children need to be treated just as carefully as a child with platinum dental insurance. That doesn’t always happen.
The lack of early care means problems almost certainly will build up. When children finally end up at a dentist’s office, they can end up having teeth pulled instead of receiving a tooth-saving procedure, the sort of care someone with money or insurance receives.
Price was correct when she said, “If the state wants to make this mandate, then they should have provided the money for the child to go and have good care.”
That’s not what happened. Still, the state can use this mandate to collect essential information and then find solutions. The state Public Education Department will start in 2022 to collect data on who receives exams and who signs waivers. Hopefully, once information is gathered, solutions will follow.
New Mexico needs dental examinations for all children, adequate care after the checkup and a better understanding of how oral health impacts the classroom. Treating the root problems, rather than symptoms, will assist New Mexico in ensuring children — all children — can receive the education they deserve.