By Christine Harrison
Today I finally cleaned out my car of protest signs, T-shirts, foot warmers and rain gear.
We are approximately one month post-strike (aka “work stoppage” involving West Virginia teachers, service personnel and public employees). Still reveling in the budding camaraderie within our school and around the state, the reality is setting in.
Not to diminish the impact of our collective efforts to demand a raise and a solution to a failing insurance system, but we have only scratched the surface. We have a real problem.
The responsibility to fix the ills of society has fallen squarely on the shoulders of our public schools. We saw this at the onset of the strike.
Around the state, educators began arranging distribution for meals, snacks, work packets and child care for parents who would be affected by the strike. Legislators made bold public statements shaming educators for abandoning children, thus denying them school-made meals. Even the most determined “striker” felt some guilt over knowing some of our students rely on schools to be fed nutritious meals each day.
Returning to school after the work stoppage was a relief and a joy for most of us. We were glad to see “our kids” resume a normal routine and get back to the business of educating.
But within a few days the same problems that were present before the strike appeared even larger upon our return. Children who are victims of familial abuse, inadequate insurance, mental health problems and the opioid epidemic are flooding West Virginia’s schools.
Teachers and service personnel are on the front lines of a battle in which we have no appropriate weapons or training.
When a child comes to school and sleeps or cries all day, sometimes it’s due to the fact that his or her parents overdosed the night before and the child spent the night in an unfamiliar home.
It is a frequent occurrence that a child’s ADHD medicine, mood stabilizer medicine or seizure medicine is forgotten one day or is too expensive to purchase at the end of the month. On those days, teachers and all school staff spend an inordinate amount of time managing these challenging medical and behavioral issues.
When one child escalates into a meltdown, education stops and crisis control begins. We cease to be “school” at that point.
Babies born addicted to opioids, a condition called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), will be preschoolers soon. We are beginning to see a trickle of these enrollees already. These children are likely to exhibit cognitive impairments, speech and language disorders, significant behavior and attention issues, and fine motor impairments.
Yet they don’t respond to typical methods used to diagnose, educate and create therapy treatments for similar children who exhibit disorders or delays. We need specialized training and resources to serve these children.
In addition to the weapons we need to combat the opioid epidemic, now there is talk of arming educators with actual weapons. The fact that your child’s teacher could be carrying a gun in the classroom could become a reality. Because we are now responsible for saving our students’ lives from active shooters.
Again, this is a situation that requires training apart from undergraduate and graduate training we received in preparing to enter the classroom as educators.
In years to come, West Virginia schools will need to shift from an educational model to a medical/behavioral/tactical model. The solution to these problems flooding West Virginia schools needs to include the creation and funding of community medical/behavioral facilities that will tend to the needs of these students who need so much more than we can give. In addition, educators will require comprehensive training, resources and the support of more professionals in the schools.
We will not accept one-day seminars, quarterly drills, manuals to read in our “spare time” or stipends for a weekend training. We will no longer perpetuate the fallacy that we are the only ones in a community who are responsible for feeding our students.
We will not attempt the task of managing drug addicted children without first knowing how these chemicals affect the development of little brains. We will not carry a loaded weapon in a classroom without having the best firearms safety training available.
And we will not do any of these things without receiving a salary commensurate with our training and knowledge.
There is no doubt that educators across the state will be “United 55” if teachers and service personnel are not given proper resources to deal with this impending crisis.
If ignored, there will be another statewide revolt that will make the recent strike look like “High School Musical 2.” I will keep my foot warmers and rain gear at the ready, just in case.
Christine Harrison is a speech pathologist in Putnam County Schools. She lives in Scott Depot. This commentary should be considered another point of view and notnecessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.