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Briefing: An inside look at the effort to make sure we do right by our kids

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A local effort is ongoing to try to account for K-12 schools here being open only part time in the coming school year.

It’s going to be challenging.

Assuming that local schools follow the CDC guidelines for six-foot distancing, it’s a given that students would be able to be on site for in-person instruction two days a week.

The other three days a week, then, are the challenge, both in terms of instruction and also basic family logistics, in terms of child care for two-parent families where both work outside the home, and single-parent families where the caregiver works outside the home.

The local effort, a coalition of human-service agencies and local churches, is pulling together a strategy based on several caveats.

One, just for Waynesboro, the assumption would be that there would be a need to accommodate 300 students, elementary school age, Monday-Friday.

The assumption is that middle schoolers and high schoolers can take care of themselves.

Judge the thinking on that one by what you know about middle schoolers and high schoolers.

But if we tried to fit them in, you’d need to double your assumptions, from needing to accommodate 300 kids to accommodating 600 kids.

Which gets us to the big issues at the core of how difficult this whole enterprise is.

First being: where do you put even 300 kids?

The most logical place, the schools, is of course off-limits.

From what I’ve been told, the local group has reached out to the real-estate community to inquire about currently unused space – abandoned big-box stores, commercial offices.

The goal is to find two to three bigger locations, as opposed to several smaller ones, but beggars can’t be choosy, and time is of the essence here.

Second big issue: the cost.

From the briefing, the bottom line – building rental, staffing, food – is in the million-plus range, assuming a 30-week duration for the 2020-2021 school year.

The math breakdown comes down to roughly $4,000 per student.

To put that amount into context, the city school system is already spending $10,803 per student, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

This $4,000 would be on top of that.

And keep in mind, this is just for Waynesboro.

If we use a similar set of assumptions for Staunton and Augusta County, you’re talking needing another $5 million, give or take, to accommodate elementary school age kids across the region.

Double that, for a total price tag of around $12 million, if you aim to go full K-12 with this.

Staunton ($11.048 per student) and Augusta ($10,224 per student) spend per pupil similarly to what Waynesboro does.

So, it’s a good bit more money, and this is all assuming you find spaces, can hire staff, take care of licensing.

And it all needs to come together in the next few weeks.

The Sword of Damocles hanging over our head here being: kids already lost the last two months of the most recent academic year.

Lose another entire academic year, and you’re going to lose some kids forever.

And let’s just put it like it is: two days a week of school is not going to work for most kids, especially kids who are otherwise on their own during the day because their parents have to work to keep food on the table and the lights on.

The stakes there for us here: we already have more than our fair share of at-risk kids.

According to VDOE, 62.4 percent of Waynesboro’s K-12 students qualified for the state’s free and reduced lunch program in the 2019-2020 school year, and the corresponding number in Staunton was 57.9 percent, both well above the state average of 45.6 percent.

Education is the key for kids from tough backgrounds to be able to lift themselves out of poverty.

The two months lost in the most recent academic year may have already set us cumulatively back more than we can recover from.

Another lost entire year, and you’re writing off this generation of kids.

Failure here, as you can see, is not an option.

Time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Story by Chris Graham

augusta free press
augusta free press