If only we could just talk about academics in our statewide conversation about education reform, K-12, and – with confidence – encourage students to work hard, have fun, make friends and learn. Shoot for the stars. Yes, pursue a college education because we, the adults, will make certain that financial support is available to help turn dreams into reality.

If only we could just make sure that all school houses were safe and that there is a fix in the budget for that leaky cafeteria roof as well as the cranky boiler with an attitude problem.

If only we could just consider the costs of fixing school facilities – the playground equipment, the sandboxes, the swings, the fields, the tennis courts, the track, the gymnasium, the science labs.

If only all kids would just have an opportunity during the regular course of the day to participate in the arts – especially theater, especially band, especially choir.

If only we could just focus on improving the curriculum to guarantee academic rigor, add Advanced Placement classes and help the kids develop critical thinking skills.

If only we could just set teacher salaries at a level that would attract new instructors to the field so that every classroom would be filled with a qualified, motivated, effective and inspirational instructor.

If only were it not for the opioid crisis.

As the West Virginia Department of Education prepares to hold public forums around the state to discuss education reform, we can’t stop thinking about a laundry list of issues that need attention.

But, most of all, we are thinking about the damaged and broken kids, children who have been abused, neglected and abandoned at home. The trauma in their lives is profound. AP English is the last of their concerns.

As reported last week in The Register-Herald, a study fresh out of West Virginia University found 70 percent of teachers in the state report an increase in the number of students who are coping with substance use at home. The study, conducted in 49 of the state’s 55 counties, also found a mere 10 percent of teachers who are confident in knowing how to support children in such situations.

A different study conducted by ACEs Connection last year found an estimated 26.1 percent of West Virginia children had experienced an adverse childhood experience.

And it’s not just the kids from troubled homes who are affected. Teachers are being crushed by the grinding effects of seeing and addressing the damage day to day, leaving them emotionally drained and cynical. This, clearly, is not why they got into the teaching profession – and, yet, here they are.

Frankie Tack, one of the WVU study’s authors and clinical assistant professor, said, “We expected to hear that the opioid epidemic had an impact in classrooms, but not to this extent.”

Jessica Troilo, a co-author of the report and associate professor in the Department of Learning Sciences and Human Development, said innocent classmates, too, were feeling the effects.

“The students who don’t have those experiences at home are witnessing behaviors in the classroom that they aren’t accustomed to,” Troilo said. “This is what we call the tertiary effect of higher classroom stress linked to the opioid crisis.”

And yet another study, published Thursday, said our teenagers and young adults were more distressed, more likely to suffer from major depression, and more prone to suicide than were their counterparts in the millennial generation at the same age.

How real is the problem?

Last December, an official with the Department of Health and Human Resources told lawmakers that it would take roughly $100 million for the state to employ the number of new mental health workers needed to address the issue in West Virginia schools.

That is a lot of money and that is a lot of trauma for such a small, rural state.

And, yet, here we are.

Regardless of what is said at the meetings around the state, despite the political objectives of various legislators, aside from all of the other work that so obviously needs to be addressed, this much is clear: Our schools need more professional support to piece broken lives back together.

Can we afford to tackle all of our issues at once? Probably not, but we know where we have to start – only if we are honest, only if we have the gumption.

— The Register-Herald

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