Disease centers outside of school buildings quickly register themselves in the schoolroom and in the person of a child who is paying the penalty for living in contact with a disease center. If a child sleeps in a dark, ill-ventilated, crowded room, the result will show in his eyes and complexion; if he has too little to eat or the wrong thing to eat, he will be underweight and undersized; if his nutrition is inadequate and his food improper, he is apt to have eye trouble, adenoids, and enlarged tonsils. He may have defective lung capacity, due to improper breathing, too little exercise in the fresh air, too little food. Existence of physical defects throws little light on income at home, but conclusively shows lack of attention or of understanding. Several days' absence of a child from school leads, in every well-regulated school, to a visit to the child's home or to a letter or card asking that the absence be explained. Even newly arrived immigrants have learned the necessity and the advantage of writing the teacher an "excuse" when their children are absent. Furthermore, neighbors' children are apt to learn by friendly inquiry what the teacher may not have learned by official inquiry, why their playmate is no longer on the street or at the school desk. While physicians are sometimes willing to violate the law that compels notification of infection, rarely would a physician fail to caution an infected family against an indiscriminate mingling with neighbors. Whether the family physician is careless or not, the explanation of the absence which is demanded by the school would give also announcement of any danger that might exist in the home where the child is ill.
If it be said that in hundreds of thousands of cases the child labor law is violated and that therefore school examination is not an index to the poverty or neglect occasioning such child labor, it should be remembered that the best physical test is the child's presence at school. The first step in thorough physical examination is a thorough school census,—the counting of every child of school age. Moreover, a relatively small number of children who violate the child labor law are the only members of the family who ought to be in school. Younger children furnish the index and occasion the visit that should discover the violation of law.
Appreciation of health, as well as its neglect, is indexed by the physical condition of school children. Habits of health are the other side of the shield of health rights unprotected. Physical examination will discover what parents are trying to do as well as what they fail to do because of their ignorance, indifference, or poverty. In so far as parents are alive to the importance of health, the school examination furnishes the occasion of enlisting them in crusades to protect the public health and to enforce health rights. The Committee on the Physical Welfare of School Children found many parents unwilling to answer questions as to their own living conditions until told that the answers would make it easier to get better health environment not only for their own children but for their neighbors' children. Generally speaking, fathers and mothers can easily be interested in any kind of campaign in the name of health and in behalf of children. The advantage of starting this health crusade from the most popular American institution, the public school,—the advantage of instituting corrective work through democratic machinery such as the public school,—is incalculable. To any teacher, pastor, civic leader, health official, or taxpayer wanting to take the necessary steps for the removal of conditions prejudicial to health and for the enforcement of health rights of child and adult, the best possible advice is to learn the facts disclosed by the physical examination of your school children. See that those facts are used first for the benefit of the children themselves, secondly for the benefit of the community as a whole. If your school has not yet introduced the thorough physical examination of school children, take steps at once to secure such examination. If necessary, volunteer to test the eyes and the breathing of one class, persuade one or two physicians to cooperate until you have proved to parent, taxpayer, health official, and teacher that such an examination is both a money-saving, energy-saving step and an act of justice.
We shall have occasion to emphasize over and over again the fact that it is the use of information and not the gathering of information that improves the health. The United States Weather Bureau saves millions of dollars annually, not because flags are raised and bulletins issued foretelling the weather, but because shipowners, sailors, farmers, and fruit growers obey the warnings. Mere examination of school children does little good. The child does not breathe better or see better because the school physician fills out a card stating that there is something wrong with his eyes, nose, and tonsils. The examination tells where the need is, what children should have special attention, what parents need to be warned as to the condition of the child, what home conditions need to be corrected. If the facts are not used, that is an argument not against obtaining facts but against disregarding them.
In understanding medical examination we should keep clearly in mind the distinction between medical school inspection, medical school examination, and medical treatment at school. Medical inspection is the search for communicable disease. The results of medical inspection, therefore, furnish an index to the presence of communicable diseases in the community. Medical examination is the search for physical defects, some of which furnish the soil for contagion. Its results are an index not only to contagion but to conditions that favor contagion by producing or aggravating physical defects and by reducing vitality. Medical treatment at school refers to steps taken under the school roof, or by school funds, to remove the defects or check the infection brought to light by medical inspection and medical examination. Treatment is not an index. In separate chapters are given the reasons for and against trying to treat at school symptoms of causes that exist outside of school. When, how often, and by whom inspection and examination should be made is also discussed later. The one point of this chapter is this: if we really want to know where in our community health rights are endangered, the shortest cut to the largest number of dangers is the physical examination of children at school,—private, parochial, reformatory, public, high, college.
Apart from the advantage to the community of locating its health problems, physical examination is due every child. No matter where his schooling or at whose expense, every child has the right to advance as fast as his own powers will permit without hindrance from his own or his playmates' removable defects. He has the right to learn that simplified breathing is more necessary than simplified spelling, that nose plus adenoids makes backwardness, that a decayed tooth multiplied by ten gives malnutrition, and that hypertrophied tonsils are even more menacing than hypertrophied playfulness. He has the right to learn that his own mother in his own home, with the aid of his own family physician, can remove his physical defects so that it will be unnecessary for outsiders to give him a palliative free lunch at school, thus neglecting the cause of his defects and those of fellow-pupils.