Task force wraps up school assignment

Published 8:45 am Friday, January 12, 2024

In order to fix chronic absences in places like Charlotte and Prince Edward counties, officials need to address another problem: students dealing with a lack of food at home. That was something state task force members took a look at in their final meeting before turning in a report to the General Assembly. 

Joining the meeting was Sarah Steely, the director of No Kid Hungry Virginia. As 1 in 11 kids in Virginia face hunger, No Kid Hungry works to end childhood hunger by making sure every child gets three meals a day. One main way to do this is with Breakfast After the Bell. 

Breakfast After the Bell is already in many schools as it explores new ways to serve breakfast to students who need it.

Traditionally, students go to breakfast before the start of the school day before the first bell. This leaves a small window of time for students to get to the cafeteria and eat before classes start. 

To help break the stigma and create more opportunities, Breakfast After the Bell has three alternatives for schools to try and see what works best for them. These options are to have breakfast in the classroom, a grab-and-go location or a second-chance breakfast. These last two options are also helpful for students who come late to still have a chance to eat. 

“Also, just the fact that having access to quality nutrition helps students be healthier,” said Steely. “Roughly said, if you’re well fed then you’re less likely to get sick which also contributes to more time in school versus being home sick.”

LOOKING AT THE NUMBERS 

According to No Kid Hungry, schools that have implemented Breakfast after the Bell have seen a reduction of absenteeism by 6%. This program helps reduce the stigma of hunger and provides a need for students. This guarantees at least two of the three daily meals. Some schools are working on dinner programs to get that third meal in as well. 

While discussing these issues is important, the task force looked back on the topics already covered and what they’ve done to implement changes for transportation, family engagement and mental health. 

Carla Alpern, assistant superintendent at Louisa County Public Schools, mentioned how important it was to stress to all parents the importance of attendance. She brought up a conversation she had with one of her principals who had an interesting discussion with the parents of a kindergartener who already missed 18 days of school. It’s important to remember that kindergarten is more than arts and crafts as it lays the foundation for the student’s education.

“I think one of the biggest questions I get every time I’m interviewed about chronic absenteeism is what is the most important thing you need to say to families,” said State Superintendent Lisa Coons. “I say every single time, families need to reach out to their teacher, their school leader and their school because they have the resources and support to help families reengage.”

TALKING ABOUT SICKNESS 

Cumberland Superintendent Dr. Chip Jones mentioned in a previous meeting that a big hurdle for Cumberland County was getting kids back to school after the COVID-19 pandemic. The narrative shifted from keeping kids at home to sending them to school as long as they’re not too sick. Dr. John Farrell, a pediatrician also on the task force, spoke to this sentiment again and how to reframe it. As many stayed home to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19, Farrell encouraged schools to use this message as they try to flatten the new curve of chronic absenteeism.