Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine’s COVID Support Our Schools initiative publishes findings

An innovative program started to assist public schools amid the pressures and uncertainty of the first waves of the COVID-19 pandemic has culminated in a paper published by faculty from the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine.

The paper, in the journal Children, concludes the COVID Support Our Schools (SOS) program helped underserved communities at a critical time — and its benefits could help with community health outreach beyond the time of a pandemic.

“Our initiative can serve as a framework for other institutions to establish a community-academic partnership,” the authors write. “Such initiatives and community involvement can continue beyond the pandemic to address ongoing health care concerns and challenges such as vaccine hesitancy, health curriculum and sports safety.”

“We are so proud of the commitment to the mission and values of the school that the Human Dimension represents,” Dr. Jeffrey Boscamp, dean of the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, who was not one of the authors, stated. “This was an example of really making an impact in the community at a time of unthinkable need.”

COVID SOS was developed as part of the school’s Human Dimension course curriculum, which is focused on outreach into the community. COVID SOS aimed to provide expertise about opening, and opening safely, to select school districts in underserved communities that had previously partnered with the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine’s innovative Human Dimension program.

Each of the schools was paired with a Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine Support Our Schools Task Force consisting of eight medical students supervised by one of the school’s faculty physicians. Each Task Force was trained in the latest in COVID-19 research and developments. The members of each task force met with school leadership approximately once a month.

Overall, the COVID SOS program reached 11 school districts and one Boys and Girls Club, which totaled 138 individual schools from historically underserved areas across New Jersey.

In addition to a personalized task force, school districts had access to the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine faculty COVID advisory board of 12 members, which hosted regular Q&A sessions as much as every week, depending on COVID trends of the time, in order to provide real-time support and weekly scientific updates.

Eighty-three percent of the school districts responded to a follow-up survey, with almost all scores in the 90th percentile.

“It was wonderful having access to real-time information from experts in our area,” wrote one school group.

“We provided personalized support and resources to these schools to help them navigate the pandemic,” Dr. Harpreet Pall, the academic chair and professor of the school’s Department of Pediatrics, and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Hackensack Meridian K. Hovnanian Children’s Hospital, said. “The group did its job — and found a way to make an even bigger impact — when we were confronted with the health crisis of our time.”

The Human Dimension course at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine is a three-year class focused on teaching future doctors the importance of the “social determinants of health” — including housing, food access and other standard-of-life factors. Pairs of medical students are matched with families and a community. The students come to know these individuals, families and communities very well — and, in turn, the families and communities have become connected to the school. So far, about 265 families and 80 community partners have been touched by the program, in communities including Clifton, Nutley, Passaic, Paterson, Hackensack, Garfield, Bloomfield, West New York, Union City and groups spanning the state of New Jersey.

“In order to create health equity, we must create meaningful partnerships within our communities built on trust,” Dr. Carmela Rocchetti, director of the Human Dimension, said. “We are grateful to have provided this support in an unprecedented time of need.”