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Amid the pandemic — and precarious funding — Minneapolis’ school-based clinics try to hang on

Earlier this year, the nonprofit Youthprise offered a financial lifeline to keep clinics at the city’s three biggest high schools open — albeit one that funds the program only through the end of the year.

South High School
The clinic at South High School was one of three in Minneapolis eligible to be funded through federal public health grants due to high teen pregnancy rates.
MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner

Earlier this fall, the city of Minneapolis received a $65,000 grant from the nonprofit Youthprise so that the school-based sexual health clinics at three of the city’s biggest high schools, Patrick Henry, South and Roosevelt, could stay afloat. 

The announcement was welcomed by city leaders and supporters of the program, but it only provided a temporary reprieve. After December, the clinic program is still in danger of going away — even if the city’s persistent and pronounced disparities around rates of sexually transmitted diseases are not. 

Though the health facilities also offer students general health care as well as mental health services, the school-based clinic program was started specifically to foster sexual health, as they have since being created in the 1980s. (A clinic at North High School, which is operated by NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center, has been around since the 1970s). 

“Providing health care where young people are is really critical,” said the city’s school-based clinics manager, Barbara Kyle.

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Each clinic offers a variety of reproductive health services, from contraceptive counseling and diagnosis of sexually transmitted infections to pregnancy services. The clinics also offer a range of health and wellness services, including information and guidance on COVID-19 during the pandemic, and services are provided at low or no cost depending on whether a student has insurance.

But the key is accessibility — being in the building where the students are. “I just see a lot of relationship building and support that happens as a result of the clinic,” said Alison Moore, who has been with the program since 2011. Having a health educator consistently in the schools, she said, means that if a student is in need of guidance or clinical care there is a familiar face welcoming them. 

As with so many other things, however, COVID-19 dramatically changed how the clinics operated. With schools closed, the ability to see new clients became far more difficult. “It’s hard to engage new people when it’s all remote, telemedical visits,” said Kyle. 

The loss of face-to-face engagement made it more difficult for clinic staff to build trust with the people they see, many of whom are young people of color facing stark disparities when it comes to sexually transmitted diseases. In 2018, for instance, the city found that Black people between the ages of 18 and 24 in Minneapolis were almost eight times more likely to contract chlamydia than their white counterparts, while Native Americans were over five times more likely and Hispanic people nearly twice as likely. 

When it comes to gonorrhea, the numbers are even worse: Young Black people in Minneapolis are 15 more likely to contract it than young white people, while Native Americans are over 17 times more likely. 

Amid all this, the program’s funding became precarious. For years — because they served zip codes with the highest teen pregnancy rates in the city — the clinics at Henry, South and Roosevelt were eligible to be funded through federal public health grants, with some revenue also coming from billing insurance companies for services. (Clinics at other city schools, including Longfellow Alternative, Southwest, Washburn and Edison high schools, are funded through other grants, and have funding to keep them open through the end of school year, said Kyle.)

But this year was the last of a multi-year grant for Henry, South and Roosevelt, and when the program applied for another five years of funding through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, officials learned there was far more competition. This time around, the program wasn’t awarded the money. 

When Youthprise, a youth-specific nonprofit in Minneapolis, caught wind of the situation, it offered a lifeline, albeit one that gets the three schools’ clinics only through the end of this year.

Marcus Pope, vice president of Youthprise, said that, typically, when the organization chooses to “step in and make a commitment, it’s for the long haul,” and that the organization will assess the school clinic program and decide whether or not to contribute money again to keep it going into 2021.  

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Kyle remains hopeful that funding will come through to keep the program alive, whether from Youthprise or another source. But for now, she said, her focus is on trying to stretch every dollar, and every resource, to keep all the clinics open for as long as possible.