Public schools throughout the state are in current crisis mode as the opioid epidemic continues to sweep its way in and remain a dark cloud over West Virginia, according to Diana Whitlock, the autism coordinator for the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE).
Whitlock was one of the handful of panelists at an April 19 stakeholder meeting regarding how public schools are responding to the opioid epidemic. She said, “I’m happy to be here, but I’m not happy over the reason I’m here.
“The opioid crisis has had such an impact on our schools, and our teachers are crying out for help.”
Whitlock and others at WVDE have formed a first draft of an initiative to aid in conquering the crisis – “Reclaim West Virginia.” She said before coming up with solutions, they had to figure out what they were dealing with.
Per WVDE’s research, nearly 58 per 100,000 people in West Virginia died from drug-related overdoses in 2017. One year earlier, 6,095 children were placed in the foster care system. In 2013, 33 out of 1,000 children were born with neonatal drug-related issues, and that number spiked to 51 in 2017.
“Students are coming into kindergarten with behaviors we’ve never even seen before, and as behavior problems increase, the academic scores go lower and lower,” Whitlock said.
“Reclaim West Virginia” will focus on four target populations — students, educators, families and communities. Presently, the initiative’s two main goals are to provide more trauma informed training and to build capacity among its partnerships.
“Students are dealing with things they’ve never had to before, which leads to the teachers dealing with things they’ve never had to before,” Whitlock said. “A parent could overdose the night before and they still come to school the next day and try to take a math or spelling test. It’s traumatic.”
Building more partnerships with other agencies is also necessary, Whitlock said, because there’s no need to duplicate programs when working together would be more beneficial. She also believes it’s important to build more training on the student level as well.
Building leadership among the youth is crucial so students can lead their own peers, she said.
“We want to get into schools and show how to build peer networking groups so they can provide positive peer pressure,” Whitlock said. “Maybe this exposure will encourage students to join the mental health field when they graduate.”
Whitlock said extreme behaviors among students are becoming more regular and causing a domino effect.
“We have to get together and fix this,” Whitlock said. “Our teachers are facing compassion fatigue and they’re saying, ‘This isn’t what I was trained to do. I want to help them but I’m not equipped.’”
Felicia Bush, founder and CEO of Harmony Mental Services, focuses on “arousal theory” when it comes to students learning in the classroom. She said the goal is to “provide optimum arousal for learning,” which means we don’t want zero stress in the classroom, and we don’t want a stress overload — because optimal human performance happens when we experience a little bit of stress.
To put the “arousal theory” to work, Bush said Harmony Mental Health Services has initiated something new — Project “Breathe,” which stands for Building, Resiliency, Education, Awareness, Trauma, Healing, Environments. The project focuses on training, self-care, intervention, support and consultation.
“The teachers have much to do with this,” Bush said. “We have to be able to train them for the things they are now having to deal with, but self-care is so important for our teachers. We have to take care of the people who take care of our children.”
Also under Project Breathe, when it comes to providing support, several grants have been given for “calming corners” and “reset stations.”
Calming corners, also dubbed “Child Attitude Adjustment,” are an area of the classroom a child can go with things like books, teddy bears or pillows to calm down when they’ve been having a stressful day. The reset stations used for “adult attitude adjustment” are for teachers, including things like massage chairs, foot massagers and diffusers.
“Sometimes you just need a few minutes to recuperate,” Bush said. “They’ve both gone over really well. We want teachers to know they matter to us.
“They have to be OK for the children to be OK.”
Having mental health services for students and the coverage to actually do so go hand in hand, and Medicaid spends $4 billion of its annual $400 million budget in schools.
According to Jessica Schubel, analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, it’s a “very small portion of the pie” for Medicaid, but losing it would be “a big deal” to school districts.
In 2014, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a state Medicaid director letter reversing the long-standing free care policy. This change allows states more flexibility in their school-based Medicaid programs by allowing school districts to bill Medicaid for health services delivered to all Medicaid-enrolled children, not just those with a special education plan documented by an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
Medicaid provides health coverage to 42 percent of all children in West Virginia, according to Kat Stoll, policy director at West Virginians for Affordable Health Care. She said the coverage can pay for health services not only at a doctor’s office but also at public schools.
“School is an obvious, important venue for convenient access to health services because children spend most of the day at school,” Stoll said.
Teachers are asking for more wrap-around services for school children, and according to Kelli Caseman, director of Child Health-West Virginians for Affordable Healthcare, 66,439 West Virginia students are currently receiving medically ordered care under the management of a school nurse. Additionally, 17.8 percent of West Virginia students have an IEP.
With a large population of students in the state having to receive health care at school, Caseman said it was disappointing no legislation was passed to increase school health support services during the 2019 legislative session.
“Not yet, anyways. We hope that changes soon.”
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