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s the opioid epidemic persists, children are oftentimes left in the wake of their parents’ addictions. With the well-being of their families on their minds, elementary-aged students are bogged down at school and can’t perform academically to the best of their ability, forcing teachers to adapt to the changing climate of educating in southeast Ohio.
A “significant” number of children in the Athens City School District have lost a parent from addiction due to death, incarceration, abandonment or legal loss of parental custody, said Diane Stock, a social worker from Athens County Children Services at The Plains Elementary School.
“For some students, teachers and school staff become those trusted, safe adults that can foster resiliency through consistent, positive interactions,” she said in an email.
Addressing the effects of familial opioid abuse in the classroom is essential to instructing students in this area, but Ohio University’s Patton College of Education does very little to train teachers to combat the problem, Eugene Geist, an associate professor of early childhood education, said.
“We don’t do enough of preparing our teachers for dealing with some of these issues,” he said. “It’s not just here. In general, colleges of teacher education aren’t doing as good of a job as we should.”
Geist said the school offers courses on dealing with family issues and classes about diverse students, but OU does not offer education courses specifically dealing with drug abuse and the neglect that oftentimes goes along with that problem.
A strong suit of the education program, however, is the ties to the child and family studies program, Geist said. Through programs like that, students are trained to look for signs of neglect, which could indicate further problems, such as drug abuse.
“Sometimes, as educators, we don’t always think as much about the child’s home life as we should,” he said. “What we end up having are instead of finding out about what’s going on in a child’s life, we might see for example, certain behavioral manifestations in the classroom. … Instead of being a behavioral problem, you look at it as a symptom of their home life.”
Schools in Athens County are already having to deal with issues of opioid abuse, but, similarly to training future educators, Athens City Schools does not have a program in place specifically to address drug abuse because the state of Ohio does not require it.
Athens City Schools does provide state-required training sessions on identifying and responding to abuse and neglect annually through Athens County Children Services, though Athens City School Superintendent Tom Gibbs called it a “hit or miss.”
“It’s obviously very difficult issue to address from the perspective of working with school age children,” Gibbs said. “Part of it is that we don’t necessarily know. … It’s hard for us to ascertain if what we’re seeing in school is a result of opioid abuse or something else.”
Beyond required training, Gibbs said Athens City Schools tries to offer additional training but finds it difficult because of the lack of time and resources public educators have access to.
“We have so many trainings now, to be quite frank it’s difficult to get them all scheduled in the time they have,” he said. “To expect teachers to give up more and more unpaid time for training is an unrealistic expectation. I’d like to see more training, but I’d like to see the state put more funding for that training to pay professionals for their time.”
Athens City Schools does provide in-school mental health services because students who need those services are more likely to get to their appointments if the school can provide it, Gibbs said.
Though local schools provide some services, Stock said there is room for improvement.
“Ideally, I would like to see lower student to teacher ratios so struggling students could get more of that positive adult interaction that encourages brain development,” she said in an email. “My big dream is a district run school that provides intensive trauma informed therapeutic interventions while still maintaining academic instruction.”