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Investing in the Future — Our Children in West Virginia

On Wednesday, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice gave his State of the State Address. Hours earlier, children across West Virginia were returning home from their classrooms, in schools that are severely under-funded and under-staffed to meet their mental health needs.

Many of our children returned to homes to face the effects of poverty, the opioid epidemic, or to grandparents or foster parents raising them in place of their parents. West Virginia ranks first in the nation for childhood poverty in children aged to six, and fourth overall in the nation in childhood poverty. West Virginia also ranks second in the nation in the percentage of children being raised by grandparents, due mostly to the opioid crisis that is crippling our state.

One-fourth of West Virginia children have experienced an adverse childhood trauma (abuse, neglect, violence, or drug use, incarceration etc.). These statistics are sobering, yet our schools lack necessary resources to help them succeed.

At this critical time in West Virginia, we must provide our children, the future of West Virginia, with the necessary resources to succeed. We simply can’t afford not to. We need more school counselors, school social workers, school psychologists, and school nurses in our public schools to meet the needs of our most vulnerable citizens, our children.

In a recent report, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources released its recommendations of per student ratios for these mental health professionals, and what was found was that West Virginia schools are severely behind in the number of mental health professionals necessary to adequately service our students. To meet recommended guidelines, our state would need to hire an additional 380 school counselors, between 395-554 school psychologists, and over 700 more school social workers.

West Virginia also had over 700 teacher vacancies last year due to the rising health care costs of PEIA (Public Employees Insurance Agency) and stagnant salaries that are over $14,000 less than the national average. The 2018 teacher and school service personnel walk-outs yielded positive results in the areas of salary increases and a promise to fix and fund PEIA to ensure that quality teachers and service personnel can afford to stay in and work in our state to serve our children.

These measures, along with Governor Justice’s proposal to increase salaries an additional 5 percent this session, are positive steps toward ensuring that our classrooms are staffed with highly qualified teachers and service personnel.

We must continue to push the legislature to focus on education and initiatives for well-funded schools. Reducing class size caps is also a necessary step to ensure that our students receive more direct and individual attention to succeed to their fullest ability academically. We also must demand steady funding sources for PEIA and for funding solutions to ensure that we can adequately staff our schools with the mental health professionals necessary to service our students.

Our students need and deserve well-funded schools, with trauma informed care, and adequate mental health professionals in each school.

The future of West Virginia is in our classrooms and we can’t afford not to invest in them.

(Op-Ed originally published on January 13th, 2019 in the Intelligencer)

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