By Rebecca J. Barnabi
For Augusta Free Press
WAYNESBORO — From August 2019 to February 2020, three incidents of assault were reported from Waynesboro Schools, two of which occurred at Kate Collins Middle School. The following year, no assaults were reported while students learned virtually from home. But, from August 2021 until last month, 11 assaults were reported, including four at Kate Collins Middle and six at Waynesboro High School.
Students at Kate Collins Middle School this academic year did not attend school in person last year. Today’s seventh-graders were in fifth grade when the COVID-19 pandemic began, and eight-graders were in sixth grade.
“I think our situation is not unique across the state and across the country,” said Dr. Ryan Barber, assistant superintendent of Waynesboro Schools. “Middle schoolers are really struggling.”
Some of the middle school’s students spent the last few years looking at computer screens for education instead of learning in classrooms with their peers.
“They just haven’t been able to be around other people,” Barber said. The students have not had the regular supports provided in the school system, such as school counselors. “They just didn’t have access to them,” Barber said of mental health assistance.
According to Barber, the situation is not unique to Waynesboro, however the rural area of the Valley compounds the school system’s situation, which highlights the need for the hiring of 15 staff members as presented in the school system’s 2022-2023 budget. Funded by the CARES Act, the positions will add school counselors and a social worker.
“They are heavily focused on student mental health,” Barber said of the new positions. The city of Waynesboro does not have the funds to support the new positions.
Families were encouraged to seek community resources, Barber said, but the area does not have a lot of child mental health providers, and most facilities with the right resources have long waiting lists because of the effects of the pandemic.
“So, what happened is the kids who are not getting the support they need are right back in the same situation [when they return to in-person school],” Barber said.
Barber said that middle school is “always difficult and always a time of angst” for students, on top of economic challenges Waynesboro students face, as well as a global pandemic during which parents lost their jobs and perhaps loved ones died from a virus.
“We’ve got kids in crisis,” Barber said. And students also returned to school “who aren’t ready academically” for what would be expected of them as students. “They’ve really struggled.”
The school system partnered with The ARROW Project in Staunton this year to provide additional mental health support for students until individuals are hired for the 15 new positions funded by the CARES Act.
Barber said that social media has also not been a friend during this difficult time. Not only misinformation contributes to disagreements among students, but social media provides forms of communication outside the schools.
“It just happens [the assault is] going to take place on our property,” Barber said. In some cases, the disagreement has nothing to do with being at school, but it began on social media, which is a broader community issue. “And our kids are dealing with adult issues.”
Some students are not developmentally ready after learning virtually from home, plus they have experienced fear and isolation during the pandemic.
Barber said he is proud of Waynesboro Schools staff for getting themselves and students through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s kind of like a tidal wave of mental health needs that our kids are struggling with,” Barber said.