What Other Hygienists Do: A Look at a School-based Dental Program

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Switching settings now, we enter the public health sector, which includes the school-based community. According to the American Dental Association, dental public health is defined as “that part of dentistry providing leadership and expertise in population-based dentistry, oral health surveillance, policy development, community-based disease prevention and health promotion, and the maintenance of the dental safety net.”1

I asked Paula Morrison, RDH, BS, the same questions from my previous interview, What Other Hygienists Do A Look at Care Behind Bars. Paula has been a dental hygienist for over 12 years. More specifically, Paula works in a school-based dental program. I wanted to dive in deeper and learn how Paula got to the hygiene position she works in today.

School-Based Dental Health

Kaitlyn: How many years have you been a hygienist? How long have you been at your present job? What do you do in this work setting? Job tasks? Treatments or procedures? Education?

Paula: I have been a hygienist for 12 years, and I work for a community health center as a hygienist in their school-based dental program. Our program provides the following services: dental exams, cleanings, sealants, fluoride varnish, and radiographs. We educate students while we have them in our chairs, and we are hoping to add a restorative component to the program later this year. The community health center is responsible for billing out for services rendered. I have been working in this school program for the past five years.

Kaitlyn: How did you get to this position?

Paula: A dental hygiene friend of mine told me that there was a position available for this particular job. It’s all about networking!

Kaitlyn: Why did you decide to work in this setting?

Paula: I started working in the school setting since my graduation from dental hygiene school and decided to do this because it was a part-time position that fit my schedule. The job was available in the city where I grew up, so I was familiar with all of the schools in the area. Since then, I have remained working in the schools for all of my career and will continue to do so as long as I can!

Kaitlyn: What are some things you would like others to know about hygienists in this specific work setting?

Paula: We are a dedicated and committed team of hygienists who love to provide services to children in the schools. We are flexible, accommodating, and truly enjoy providing these services to children that may not otherwise receive dental care. Everyone working in the program is very much aware of problem areas in our schools. Because our program has been in existence for so long, we are definitely aware of the needs and priorities.

We also work with two dentists and one dental assistant. Our program has been in this community within the schools for approximately 17 years. We also work with the school nurses to make sure they are aware of the students’ dental needs. The program calls the parents and tries to schedule them with the health center if they do not have a dentist of record or get them back to their own dentist if they have one.

We provide services that I previously mentioned, just like any dental office. Scheduling school visits can have its challenges. We try to visit most elementary schools up to three times per school calendar year if time permits and twice a year for middle and high school levels.

Additionally, our program keeps a log of the decay so that we can check to see if the parents followed up between visit one and visit two.

Kaitlyn: How is this work setting different than other settings in the dental hygiene profession?

Paula: For starters, the schedule is one of the differences. You need to be flexible, and you may not have the option to work full-time because the job follows the school year calendar. I work the same schedule as the schools, which means I have all holidays, vacation weeks, and the summer vacation time off as well. We base our schedule by going into the schools with the most needs first so that we can possibly get there three times a year.

Some hygienists may prefer to work full-time year-round, so a school schedule may not accommodate their needs.

Setting up equipment in a school can vary from school to school. It all depends on where the school has available space. We have set up in many different areas, including all of the following: in an open available classroom, in the nurse’s office, in the gym, on a stage in the auditorium or cafeteria, in the library, in the hallway, or even under a stairwell. Once we are set up in the location, we can typically stay there until we finish seeing all of the children. However, we have had to break down and set up in another location within the school if the space we are using is needed for something going on in the school.

Traveling is another difference; we travel to approximately 40 different schools in five different towns. You need to like to be moving around in this job! Carrying portable equipment is required and can be heavy. The dental works unit weighs 46 pounds, and the portable dental chair weighs 30 pounds. Moving equipment in and out of schools in all kinds of weather may not be for everyone. This is a portable dental program, so it is like having a dental office on the road.

Kaitlyn: Are there any specific requirements that are needed to work in this specific setting?

Paula: No, there are no specific requirements other than being an RDH. I work for a community health center, which is a little different than working as a public health dental hygienist, who owns her or his own business.

Kaitlyn: Are there any other comments or info you would like to add regarding your dental hygiene career or job position?

Paula: This is a very rewarding job, and I love making a difference in children’s oral health. The work is hard, but I love what I do!

Now Listen to the Today’s RDH Dental Hygiene Podcast Below:


  1. American Dental Association. (2012). Orientation Module: Dental Public Health. Retrieved from https://www.ada.org/~/media/ADA/Member Center/FIles/dph_educational_module.pdf
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Since a very young age, Kaitlyn Machado, RDH, BS, MEd, FADHA, has always wanted to be a dental hygienist. She was the youngest student to graduate from her dental hygiene class in 2017. Since then, Kate has gone back for both her bachelor's and master's degrees. She is a faculty member at her local dental hygiene school, a clinical dental hygienist, and has been a part of Today's RDH since its launch. She is extremely passionate about homecare and loves her prophy paste and fluoride varnish. In addition, Kate loves to work with a local non-profit organization that helps fight against hygiene insecurity of all ages in her community. Kate is very involved in the profession as much as she can, including local and state-level professional associations. She loves to attend professional conferences when she can. When she isn't working, she enjoys traveling, sports, watching movies, and spending time with her amazing, supportive family.