Children at Discovery Elementary School in Everett watch as Amanda Good seals molars Feb. 7. (Mukilteo School District)

Children at Discovery Elementary School in Everett watch as Amanda Good seals molars Feb. 7. (Mukilteo School District)

Smile Check offers free dental care for hundreds of kids who need it

More than 1,300 students in the Mukilteo School District received screenings and referrals at school.

MUKILTEO — Of the 1,317 elementary kids given free screenings last fall in the Mukilteo School District, providers identified 251 with “urgent” dental needs.

Those are kids who had visible cavities and should see a dentist within two to four weeks. Another 58 had “emergent” needs including infections, broken teeth, pain and rampant cavities. They needed to see a dentist immediately.

Community Health Center of Snohomish County offered the screenings through a program known as Smile Check. Anna Scheglov, director of dental operations, stressed the importance of preventing and treating tooth decay in kids: A cavity not only causes pain and infection, but “if left untreated, it can lead to lifelong problems such as nutritional issues, speech, jaw development, learning ability, growth, sleep patterns and even (affect) emotional well-being,” Scheglov said.

Parents and caregivers must sign consent for their kids to receive the screening. Students return home with an oral health report card with all the information parents need to follow up if necessary.

“We’re catching those kids that wouldn’t otherwise be caught,” said Debra Suggs, lead nurse for the Mukilteo School District. “Almost all kids come to school, but not all go to the dentist or another health care provider.”

If children are in pain, they might be distracted at school, or even stay home.

Children at Discovery Elementary School in Everett lean in to see Amanda Good seal molars Feb. 7. (Mukilteo School District)

Children at Discovery Elementary School in Everett lean in to see Amanda Good seal molars Feb. 7. (Mukilteo School District)

Community Health Center started the Smile Check program in 2013, but suspended it during the pandemic. This fall was the first year back in operation. All of the children in kindergarten through fifth-grade at eight Mukilteo schools had the option to receive a free screening, regardless of insurance coverage.

The eight schools, all of which have the federal designation Title I, have a high share of children from low-income households. These schools also tend to have a larger share of kids from ethnic minority groups, as well as immigrant families. At Discovery Elementary School, for example, 70% of kids live in low-income households, and about one-third of the kids identify as white and non-Hispanic, according to data reported to the state.

More than half of the kids who participated in Smile Check had coverage through the state’s Medicaid program, Apple Health. In Snohomish County, half of children with Apple Health did not receive any dental care in the state’s fiscal year 2021.

Statewide, the share of all children with Apple Health who received dental care has dropped each year since the pandemic began, according to government data analyzed by the Arcora Foundation.

Community Health Center prioritizes those kids with emergent or urgent dental needs whose families contact a clinic for fillings and other follow-up treatment.

After 90 days, 35% of those kids with urgent needs had visited the clinic, and nearly half with emergent needs had done so, Scheglov said. Another 30% of kids who received a screening came in for routine care.

Dr. Jill Tyler prepares supplies to screen kids and apply sealants at Discovery Elementary School in Everett on Feb. 7. (Mukilteo School District)

Dr. Jill Tyler prepares supplies to screen kids and apply sealants at Discovery Elementary School in Everett on Feb. 7. (Mukilteo School District)

Community Health Center is currently providing education, fluoride treatments and sealants for second- and third-graders at Title I schools in the Mukilteo and Edmonds school districts. Sealants can protect the kids’ newly erupted molars from cavities for many years. At Discovery Elementary School, Suggs estimated 60 kids were screened.

She enjoyed seeing them support each other that day. One kid felt really nervous about the sealant, so the others cheered them on, saying, “You got this.”

As a federally qualified health center, Community Health Center’s mission is to care for low-income and underserved communities. It estimated the value of the Smile Check screenings as $20,000 for donated staff time and supplies.

“We strive to provide access to the community who may otherwise not be able to get dental care due to economic, cultural or linguistic barriers,” Scheglov said. “Many families also have a lack of familiarity with the health care system and are unaware of the benefits or services that are offered. So we here at CHC try to help them gain the access and the education to that.”

Suggs added poverty, lack of insurance and language barriers all affect access to care. But the biggest one might be “survival mode.” Suggs said. “I think about Maslow’s pyramid, they’re barely making that bottom rung, if they are at all.”

These dental programs knock down several barriers at once, with free care provided at school, as well as access to multilingual providers and interpreters. Community Health Center hopes to expand Smile Check to more school districts next fall.

Joy Borkholder: 425-339-3430;; Twitter: @jlbinvestigates.

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