Whitmer signs law to keep Michigan kids focused on class—not toothaches

Whitmer signs law to keep Michigan kids focused on class—not toothaches

By Kyle Kaminski

December 14, 2023

Legislation signed into law this week by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will help ensure thousands of Michigan children have access to dental care before they go to kindergarten.

MICHIGAN—For the last 50 years, kindergarteners in Michigan schools have been required to take hearing and vision tests as part of ensuring they’re ready to begin their educational journey. 

And beginning next fall, there’ll be a new assessment added into the fold: a dental exam.

Legislation signed into law this week will require (and fund) oral health screenings for all incoming kindergarten and first grade students in Michigan within six months of their first day of school. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the idea is centered on ensuring students are ready to focus on school throughout the day, rather than be distracted by a toothache or dental issue.

“These bills will prioritize the health and safety of our children by testing dental health at a young age,” Whitmer said in a statement after signing the bill on Wednesday. “Let’s keep working together to make sure every child is safe, healthy and can build a bright future in Michigan.”  

While preventable, research shows that tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease and is responsible for 51 million missed school hours nationally each year

Senate Bill 280—which was introduced by state Rep. Sam Singh (D-East Lansing)—takes a proactive approach by amending the state’s Public Health Code to require dental exams for children who are registering for the first time in kindergarten or the first grade in Michigan.

“Dental health is often overlooked when we talk about the health and development of our kids. All families need access to care to ensure their children stay healthy and can be successful,” Singh said in a statement. “It’s a sensible step toward ensuring our children’s well-being.”

Research has shown that about 25% of preschool-age children get visible cavities before entering kindergarten, with more than 67,000 kids enrolling in school before visiting a dentist

Dentists said the consequences can be enormous—including distracting pain that can make it difficult to focus on class or sleep at night, or even make it difficult to eat nutritious food at lunch. 

The state-funded screenings are set to help avoid those issues by expanding access to care.

“Oral health is critically important to overall wellbeing and the ability to learn, grow and thrive,” said Amy Zaagman, executive director of the Michigan Council for Maternal and Child Health, in a statement. “Screening is the first step towards connecting families to oral health care.”

The law also requires the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to establish a new program to provide dental assessments for children who do not have a dentist of their own.

That program is slated to cost the state about $4.5 million to roll out across 45 different local health departments—most of which has been allocated from the state’s education budget. About 112,000 kindergarten students are expected to benefit from the program, state officials said.

Under the law, dental exams will not be required for children whose parents or guardians provide a written statement that the requirement violates their personal religious beliefs.

“Dental assessments for kindergartners will help tens of thousands of children across Michigan,” said Holli Seabury, executive director of the Delta Dental Foundation, in a statement. “This important law will help improve kids’ health and set them up for success in school and beyond.” 

READ MORE: New ‘Filter First’ laws to protect Michigan kids from dirty drinking water

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  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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