Student Well-Being

More States Call on Schools to Provide Period Products, But Many Don’t Fund Mandates

By Evie Blad — June 26, 2023 5 min read
A close crop of girl's hands holding a fan of sanitary napkins.
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Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now require schools to provide free menstrual products to students, but the majority of them provide districts no additional funding to support those efforts, a new analysis finds.

The new laws aim to address “period poverty,” a term coined by student advocates who say inadequate access to tampons and sanitary pads can make it difficult for low-income menstruating students to attend school and engage in classroom work during their periods.

New York became the first state to require free period products in schools in 2018, and many other states have passed or considered similar bills in the time since, according to an analysis released last week by the National Association of State Boards of Education.

“While nothing prohibits a school from providing menstrual products to students free of charge, many school leaders are unaware of the disparate access to these items, the negative impact the disparity has on access to education, and the low-cost solution,” the analysis says.

But new state laws don’t always lead to universal access to the products, the report found, suggesting issues of funding, compliance, and details like where products are offered in schools affect whether the policies are effective in helping students.

What states require schools to stock free period products?

“Menstrual products are as necessary as toilet paper and soap, but can be one expense too many for struggling families,” former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said as he signed the state’s 2018 law.

While some states, like California, had required schools to provide pads and tampons in high-poverty schools, New York’s was the first to make the requirement universal for schools with 6th- through 12th-grade students.

Sixteen additional states and D.C. have passed various versions of “period poverty” laws since, the NCSB report found, but 10 states and the District of Columbia do not provide funding to support those efforts.

Six additional states don’t require schools to offer pads and tampons, but they provide some funding to support voluntary efforts to do so.

Funding levels and grant qualifications vary in those states. In Colorado, for example, a 2021 law created an application-based program that provides grants from $1,000 to $5,000 to districts where at least 50 percent of students qualify for free- and reduced-price meals.

In contrast, a 2022 Utah law is far more expansive. It requires public school districts and charter schools to offer free menstrual products in all girls’ and unisex restrooms in elementary, middle, and high schools. The state will provide funding to support those efforts in early years, but districts must find ways to pay for them independently by 2025. That bill passed unanimously in the state’s legislature.

“We need to make sure [these products] are available to every young girl in our schools,” Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner, a Republican, told the Deseret News at the time.

How pervasive is ‘period poverty’ for students?

Providing access to menstrual supplies coincide with schools’ larger efforts to address students’ nonacademic needs. Fatigue, lack of laundry access, need for mental health services, and unreliable transportation can all create hurdles to learning, school leaders say.

And those efforts have taken on new urgency since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when researchers estimate that levels of chronic absenteeism have as much as doubled in the nation’s schools.

Student advocates have said efforts to provide free menstrual products make sense in that context. But there is no official federal data on students’ access to supplies like sanitary pads and tampons.

Twenty-three percent of students responding to a 2021 survey said they had struggled to afford period products. Respondents to that online survey—administered by Period, a national organization founded by two high school students— included about 1,000 menstruating teens ages 13 to 19. Results were weighted by race.

Fifty-one percent of respondents said they had worn products longer than recommended, which can lead to dangerous health conditions, such as toxic shock syndrome. Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they sometimes or often “cannot do their best schoolwork due to lack of access to period products,” the survey found.

In 2019, a group of women’s advocates called the United for Access campaign wrote to then-U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, urging more federal funding and data on the issue.

Differences in policies on period poverty

Beyond targeted state funding, it may be possible for schools to use various federal grant programs to cover the cost of period products for some students. Federal McKinney-Vento funding, for example, can be used to help meet the personal needs of homeless students that may create barriers for learning and attendance. Homeless coordinators have told Education Week they use that funding to pay for everything from new shoes and winter coats to stocking supply closets with basic necessities like soap and tampons.

State laws that require schools to provide menstrual products vary. While some require schools to stock restrooms with the supplies, others allow them to make the products available by request from school nurses. The latter can be a barrier for shy students or those who aren’t aware of the option.

States also vary in what levels of schools must provide products, with some focusing on secondary schools and others expanding the requirement to all grade levels. The National Institutes of Health says the average American girl starts menstruation at age 12.

Most state laws require period supplies in girls’ and unisex restrooms. In some states, schools without unisex restrooms must make them available for male students as well, a requirement aimed at inclusivity for transgender and nonbinary students.

In March, an Oregon lawmaker proposed narrowing his state’s law by lifting requirements for charter schools and boys’ restrooms to stock the items. “Obviously, it doesn’t make sense to have these products in a kindergarten boys’ bathroom,” Republican state Sen. Art Robinson told the Herald and News newspaper. Robinson’s bill has not advanced.

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