How Is the Opioid Crisis Affecting Schools and Students?


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The opioid crisis facing our nation is both significant and complex. In 2016 alone, approximately 11.5 million Americans misused prescription opioids and over 42,000 died from opioid overdose. In addition to claiming more than 115 American lives per day, the crisis is also costing the U.S. $78.5 billion per year in lost productivity, healthcare, treatment and criminal justice expenses.

School systems, too, feel the impact of these striking statistics as the crisis takes its toll on children. For example, students who are living in the care of a parent or guardian struggling with opioid addiction are missing more days of school. Another devastating effect is the increase in displaced and orphaned children who are now living with elderly grandparents or entering the foster care system. Schools must be prepared to support these affected students, who bring their trauma with them to the classroom.

Health organizations have been on the front lines of combating the opioid epidemic for years, but now that we’re seeing the negative impacts of this crisis in schools, education leaders are also taking action. From a state policy perspective, there are two general categories of legislation addressing the effects of the opioid crisis in classrooms:

  • States are setting guidelines and permitting the use of opioid antagonists in schools to combat overdose. Many of these states are providing school nurses with training and authority to maintain and administer these life-saving drugs. In 2017, at least six states (Kansas, Montana, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin, and West Virginia) passed laws to this effect.
  • States are requiring the inclusion of opioid misuse and abuse instruction in health curricula, mostly in middle school and high school. In 2017, at least two states, Michigan and Maryland, passed legislation to this effect. So far, in 2018, at least six states (South Carolina, Minnesota, Arizona, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York) have proposed legislation to incorporate instruction on the opioid epidemic.

In addition to the legislation related to health instruction and overdose prevention, there are several areas of education policy that may help address the effects of the opioid epidemic. Education leaders can support affected students by incorporating trauma-informed practices in schools, ensuring foster youth are fully supported, and identifying and assisting students who are chronically absent. These measures can make a real difference for students in a very personal struggle with this national crisis.

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Senior Policy Analyst at Education Commission of the States |

Alyssa Rafa is a former senior policy analyst at Education Commission of the States.

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