One by one, the students in Michelle Meislahn’s transitional kindergarten class at Brook Hill Elementary School sat in front of Santa Rosa dentist Gina Fontana on Friday afternoon.
Some of them were a little nervous and fidgeted in the makeshift dental seat, a small, pink classroom chair. But almost instantly, they were put at ease by Fontana’s chair-side manner.
The 5-year-olds willingly opened their mouths and allowed her to check for cavities, gum swelling and infection. Soon, Fontana had attracted a cadre of young assistants to help her with the next student screening.
“It tastes like your teeth are getting stronger, doesn’t it?” Fontana said to one of the students after she applied a fluoride varnish to his teeth.
Friday’s screenings at Brook Hill were part of a school-based pilot program aimed at improving the dental health of students before they enter school. About 60 kindergarten and pre-K kids were screened during the two-hour dental health assessment effort, which was organized by Sonoma County health and Santa Rosa school officials.
It was the second day of screenings in the program, which is made possible through volunteer efforts of dental professionals like Fontana as well as a $20,000 grant from Kaiser Permanente.
The traveling pilot program, which began last week at Steele Lane Elementary School, will be held at Luther Burbank Elementary School on Feb. 24.
Aside from Fontana, a private practice dentist, two dental hygienists from Dr. Reed Ferrick’s Santa Rosa dental office and two interns from Santa Rosa Junior College’s community health worker program also volunteered.
“So many kids who have tooth decay don’t have access to a dentist,” said Fontana. “This helps identify kids who need dental care before they have a toothache.”
Kim Caldewey, dental health program manager for the county Department of Health Services, said the pilot program also calls for screenings in March at three schools in the Wright Elementary School District. In all, the program is expected to screen 500 students.
Caldewey and other county health officials said the program is an effort to address severe dental health issues among Sonoma County children.
According to a 2014 dental health survey of the kindergarten and third-grade students, more than 51 percent of students in Sonoma County have some kind of tooth decay, well above the state average. Another 20 percent have untreated decay. Another 18 percent of kindergarten and third-grade students are in need of dental care and 4 percent need urgent treatment.
County officials said the pilot program helps schools meet the goals of a state mandate that requires dental screening for all kindergarten children or first-graders who didn’t go to kindergarten.
But the state did not provide funds to pay for the screenings.
County health officials said Friday they hoped funding for such dental screenings could be made available through the Prop. 56 tobacco tax passed by voters last November.
On Friday, Melissa Shane’s two 5-year-old twins, Nathan and Ben, got their first dental screenings at Brook Hill.
“This is helpful for those of us who are stuck in that middle area that can’t afford dental insurance on our own but make too much for assistance,” Shane said.
After his screening, Ben proudly proclaimed that he had no problems with his teeth.