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Missouri is making period products free in schools as research shows great need

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri school districts are now offering free menstrual hygiene products to students thanks to a new source of state funding.

The program is beginning as school nurses across the state report a serious need for products to help their students manage their periods. In a new survey, a majority of nurses say they have students who have missed school because of their periods and have students who struggle to afford products such as tampons and pads. That’s according to preliminary research presented by St. Louis University associate professor Anne Sebert Kuhlmann at the Missouri Public Health Association conference.

This research shows difficulty managing menstruation is affecting students’ education across the state, regardless of location or demographic differences in districts. Nurses from almost all Missouri counties responded to the survey, representing two out of three public school districts in the state.

“It's not just in the urban core areas, but despite differences in district characteristics, nurses in pretty much all of the districts that responded were reporting some of these same issues,” Sebert Kuhlmann said.

Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has $1 million to reimburse schools for menstrual hygiene products. Bart Washer, Interim Assistant Commissioner with the Office of College and Career Readiness, said schools have some flexibility in what they can provide for their students, from tampons and pads to reusable menstrual cups and underwear.

“We have heard stories about students not being able to fund these products for themselves,” Washer said. “The fact that they can stay in school because they now have access to products that they need, we can focus on that level of care to help them continue learning.”

Sebert Kulhmann’s latest research built on previous work that examined menstrual hygiene needs in the Jennings School District in St. Louis. There, almost two thirds of students surveyed said at least once in the 2019-2020 school year they needed period products but couldn’t afford them.

Jennings Senior High School Principal Cryslynn Billingsley said since the research was published, her district received an influx of donations that helped meet students’ needs. Now, the school tries to talk openly about menstruation to make sure students are supported and educated.

“When we have ninth grade students coming in, they're not used to speaking so openly about it,” Billingsley said. “They're still kind of shrouded in the stigma about discussing a period.”

Billingsley’s school makes sure all teachers have kits with period products in their classrooms. Students can also go to the nurse or front office.

“We're socialized to kind of overlook some of the issues that impact girls,” Billingsley said. “So here's another opportunity for us to address some of that socialization, and that you don't have to be ashamed about having a period.”

Every district in Missouri can receive at least $500 through the program, but schools can request reimbursement for more if they have more students or higher-need students.

“It is a very real situation for schools that they need those products, [students] need to be able to have a consistent access and supply of those products,” Sebert Kuhlmann added.

For now, the program is only available for sixth through 12th grades, which Sebert Kuhlmann says could miss students who start their periods early.

The grant is only for this year. Washer said both his department and the governor have requested the legislature fund the program again.

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Kate Grumke