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Williams: Our vulnerable students need schools to reopen

Williams: Our vulnerable students need schools to reopen

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Waynesboro school classroom

An example of what a Waynesboro public school classroom will look like this school year.

This week, the Waynesboro School Board met for its monthly meeting. Like every other school division in the State of Virginia, reopening our schools was on the top of everyone’s minds, and plans for Waynesboro’s reopening dominated the conversation.

I’ll get to the details of what was shared Tuesday night in a moment, but first, I’d like to highlight something that has been implied but hasn’t been stated by many explicitly:

Our most vulnerable residents need our schools. Here’s why:

» Almost 20% of Waynesboro residents live below the poverty line. That’s a poverty rate that’s nearly double the rest of the state (10.7%) and a third higher than the nation (13.1%).

» People who live in poverty are statistically at greater risk for disease. “Socioeconomic status is the most powerful predictor of disease, disorder, injury and mortality we have,” said Dr. Tom Boyce, who is the chief of the University of California San Francisco’s Division of Developmental Medicine within the Department of Pediatrics. Once you add race to the mix, the inequity grows even more. “Chronic conditions are striking minority communities earlier and more often,” according to the university’s Center for Vulnerable Populations. Nearly 46% of Waynesboro’s student body falls into the minority category according to 2019 data reported by Waynesboro Public Schools to the Virginia Department of Education.

» The social consequences of poverty are stark. Poverty leads to higher levels of stress and depression in parents, and this is often reflected in their children. The American Psychological Association states that “poverty is linked with negative conditions such as substandard housing, homelessness, inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, inadequate child care, lack of access to health care, unsafe neighborhoods, and under-resourced schools which adversely impact our nation’s children.” Additional effects of childhood poverty include poor academic achievement, behavioral and socioemotional problems, physical health problems and developmental delays. And many families in poverty encounter barriers when trying to access physical and mental health care.

One of the things discussed at the meeting was the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). The CEP “is a non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts in low-income areas.” Initially, about half of Waynesboro’s elementary schools were CEP eligible. Now the entire division is eligible. That’s great for our students because that means all children will eat, no questions asked. But that also means our high level of poverty has made this possible.

Waynesboro Public Schools provides therapeutic day treatment (TDT) on-site for our students. All of our elementary schools have washers and dryers. Our new head nurse, Amanda McComas, comes directly from the local health department. We are grateful to the expertise Ms. McComas will bring, which is much needed during this pandemic. But we also need this level of knowledge and skill because one-fifth of our city, and possibly more at this point, are living in poverty.

Next month, WPS plans to reopen with a hybrid instruction/attendance model that seeks to address the needs of all of Waynesboro’s families. Every family has the opportunity to opt into 100% virtual/remote instruction or have their students attend twice per week. For those who choose to send their children, here’s what you can expect:

» Cleaning products supplied by the division. WPS formed a partnership with Veritiv to consolidate and coordinate cleaning efforts in our schools. Wipes, disinfectants, hand soaps and cleaners will be supplied. In addition, cleaning cloths are color-coded by usage and will be laundered separately.

» Meals will continue to be provided. Even if the student is receiving instruction remotely.

» Face masks are required when social distancing is not possible, including at all times on buses.

» Temperatures will be taken before entering the buildings. For our students who are car riders, their temperatures will be taken in their cars. For students arriving on buses, temperatures will be checked as they exit the bus. Any students with temperatures 100 or above will be separated from the others and then sent home.

» All students will participate in some virtual instruction. WPS is providing devices to all students who need them. WPS is also testing devices that will transmit wi-fi signals around a 1.5-mile radius of schools as well as T-Mobile hotspots.

» All extracurricular activities are virtual. This includes field trips.

Waynesboro superintendent, Dr. Jeffrey Cassell, is also working with area childcare providers to assess capacity and to coordinate virtual instruction where possible. We recognize the additional challenges this plan creates for those who need childcare, and while we cannot provide childcare for all residents, we will provide childcare for staff members, as they are the essential workers of our school division.

As we get closer to Aug. 18 and 19, when school is currently scheduled to begin for the 2020-21 academic year, Waynesboro families will begin receiving calls from their students’ teachers. During these conversations, individual plans for every student will be discussed so that every household will have an idea of what to expect.

Virginia’s constitution provides for the “compulsory elementary and secondary education of every eligible child of appropriate age.” In other words, we are required to provide the students of Waynesboro with free and public education. We’re working under guidance that continues to change with a global pandemic raging on in the backdrop.

There is still so much about COVID-19 that we don’t know. But what I do know is that I am exceedingly grateful that the plan we’re putting into place takes into consideration all of Waynesboro’s students and continues to throw a lifeline out to our children who need it the most.

Diana Williams, a member of the Waynesboro School Board, is a columnist for The News Virginian. Her column is published once a month.

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