The Role of Public Health Professionals in Health and Physical Education

The role of public health professionals in health education has changed dramatically in recent years. Historically, health education in schools generally focused on issues related to physical health (e.g., smoking cessation, cancer prevention) or the dangers of substance abuse. Mental health was rarely, if ever, discussed in the classroom, and sexual health education was often limited to managing the changes experienced during puberty. Health education used to focus on “behaviours” of the individual rather than recognizing that students are a part of the larger community and society. We now understand that social determinants of health significantly affect the health of all persons, and that schools and communities have an important role in health promotion.

Theory into Practice – Consider working with the administration, local public health, parents and students to assess the health priorities and needs of the school community and work together to develop support programs.

The Ontario Public Health Standards

Schools and public health units have complementary mandates. The Ontario Public Health Standards (OPHS) require public health units to promote the optimal health and development of children and youth through their work with schools. Local public health units across Ontario support health promotion by helping people improve their health through a wide range of social and environmental interventions i. Local public health units also support healthjcs protection through their immunization programs and the management of infectious and chronic diseases.

Please Note: The Ontario Public Health Standards [OPHS] and Protocols outline the fundamental public health programs and services to be delivered by Ontario’s boards of health [assessment and surveillance, health promotion and policy development, disease and injury prevention, and health protection].

Healthy Schools

The Foundations for a Healthy School ii is designed to promote health and well-being by helping educators and public health professionals create a learning environment that focuses not only on academic success, but also on the cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development of all students. Using a Comprehensive School Health model, it encourages stakeholders to ensure that students have high-quality instruction and programs, a healthy physical environment, a supportive social environment, and access to health and other needed resources and services through community partnerships.

Comprehensive School Health

Researchers emphasize that using holistic approaches in health education is highly effective, and that collaboration is a fundamental part of successfully creating supportive learning environments for children and youth. With the help of public health professionals, schools across Canada – and in many places around the world – have adopted the Comprehensive School Health framework iii. Comprehensive School Health is not limited to the classroom as “Health Education classes” were in the past. Rather, it addresses the whole school environment including the social and physical environments, teaching and learning, healthy school policy, and partnerships and services. When educators, school staff, students, health practitioners, public health consultants, and community members all take action in each of these four areas, they increase the impact of healthy school initiatives. Schools that implement the Comprehensive School Health framework are not only supporting improvements in students’ health, well-being, and educational outcomes, but they are also helping students grow into being healthy, productive members of their communities.

Theory into Practice – Consider participating in Ophea’s Healthy Schools Certification which recognizes and celebrates school communities for promoting and enhancing the health and well-being of students, school staff and the broader community.

For a thorough discussion of Comprehensive School Health, consult the Joint Consortium for School Health’s website.

Community partnerships

One way the Comprehensive School Health framework can promote connections between individuals sharing a common goal is through larger-scale community partnerships. For example, many mental health campaigns involve students, educators, school staff, parents, public health professionals, and community members. Since mental health is intrinsically connected to nutrition and physical health, community leaders or local nutritionists could organize free events that teach families how to prepare healthy meals. Similarly, school-based initiatives that involve public health, such as Great Lunches for Schools and Turn off the Screens, demonstrate how community members can work together to improve students’ health iv.

Local health-related demographic data

Public health units have access to an extensive amount of local health-related, demographic data. Many have published health status reports that include data regarding the health of residents in their region. These can include topics such as:

  • Healthy eating and eating behaviour
  • Body weight
  • Physical activity
  • Tobacco, alcohol, and drug use
  • Relationships and sexual health
  • Social and emotional well-being
  • Safety at home, school, and in the community
  • Oral health
  • Injuries
  • Sun safety

Providing student-reported data on health-related issues can help bring “health to life” in the classroom by guiding students to make connections between their learning and happenings within their community. For example, when discussing Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), have the local public health unit share data regarding STIs prevalent in the school community. Use caution and sensitivity when sharing and discussing information, always considering possible impact on or triggers for students with respect to certain topics (e.g., body weight information including discussing BMI if students are present that have an eating disorder or other body-image concerns).

Guide to community resources

Public health professionals have in-depth knowledge of local resources and services. Many public health units compile lists of and post links to important community resources on their websites. Public health staff members are exceptional “community navigators” who can help connect students and educators with the community resources they need.

Additional information regarding the role of public health in H&PE may be found on page 17 of the Ontario Curriculum, Grades 9 to 12, Health and Physical Education.


The content in this section was sourced from: Hanna, L., & Beben, A. (2015, October 21). Personal interview.

i WHO (World Health Organization). (1986). The Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion. Geneva. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/healthpromotion/conferences/previous/ottawa/en/

ii Ontario Public Service. (2014). Foundations for a healthy school: A companion resource to the K–12 School Effectiveness Framework. Queen’s Printer for Ontario. Available at: https://www.ontario.ca/page/foundations-healthy-school-companion-resource-k-12-school-effectiveness-framework

iii JCSH (Pan-Canadian Joint Consortium on School Health). (n.d.) About the consortium [web page content]. Available at: http://www.jcsh-cces.ca/en/about-us/

iv Ophea. (2015, May 4). A holistic approach to mental health [web page content].