If ever there was a time for the importance of teachers and schools to the health and wellbeing of students and the community to be recognized, that time is now.


"We know the World Health Organization defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. So when there is a disease threatening our population, it’s even more important to keep implementing health policies to bolster student wellness," said Paul Erickson, principal, Union Valley Elementary School. "And as one of the social determinants of health, schools are an essential part of wellness in our communities."


Union Valley is one of five schools that participated in the Pathways to a Healthy Kansas grant program from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas. Other Reno County organizations participated in the seven pathways, including healthcare, worksite wellness, resident wellbeing, community policy, food retail, and restaurants--representing a $300,000 investment in Reno County.


"I believe our experience with the Pathways process allowed us to laser focus on overall health and well-being, placing education behind the necessity to make sure people are well, feel connected and loved at this time," said Amy Wagoner, principal, Holy Cross Catholic School. "We have partnered with other schools, healthcare and other community organizations to organize and plan for the future. We are supporting local businesses to serve our lunches and recognize teachers and other employees for their contributions at this time."


Shifting and Serving


In only a short matter of time, schools were asked to do the seemingly impossible: shift all learning to an online platform, and shutter the school to students completely. But through rapid adaptation, teamwork, and a heart for service, schools--and our community--responded in an astounding way.


According to Kansas Action for Children, "Approximately one-half of Kansas public school students qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school. But on weekends, holidays and other school breaks, many of these Kansas kids do not have adequate access to regular meals." With schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many parents out of work or on reduced hours, the need to feed children became even greater.


"We deliver meals twice a week to six area towns and to all of our rural residents that want them, to their doors. That accounts to 422 meals per day (breakfast and lunches.) Each group receives a box of groceries, bread, meat, and a flat of canned vegetables. About 10 district volunteers helped us put this together. The food came from the Reno County Food Bank and the United Way of Reno County. It was delivered to our district by Reno County Area Transit," said Betsy McKinney Fairfield, USD 310 Superintendent.


Holy Cross Catholic School also stepped in to not only feed their students bodies, but their minds as well:


"Our first priority is to take care of the physical well being and mental health of our students and families. We are offering free lunches each weekday. We have ensured every family has a device and internet connectivity in their homes in order to check in with them regularly. We have established many links on our website to assist families in their current journey of learning at home. These include spiritual, physical, musical, and family activities for students and their families. We are offering story time twice a week online. We are surveying parents every two weeks to check on emotional needs, food insecurities and technology needs," said Principal Amy Wagoner.


Kristina Littlejohn, Haven Physical Education Instructor and Head Track Coach, also highlights the importance of strengthening student connections. "We are trying to reach out to and see how they are doing. If they turn something in, I always try to leave a comment to them and ask how they’re doing, tell them I like the physical activity they did, etc."


Pathways to Partnership


Though schools across Reno County, the state, the nation and the world have had to adapt to these challenging times, Pathways to a Healthy Kansas participants felt a unique advantage in navigating this transition.


"I am so proud to be a part of the educational system in Reno County!" said D’ana Heinlin, RN, USD 309 District Nurse. "We’ve partnered together very well!"


Fairfield Superintendent Betsy McKinney adds, "During the pandemic and associated issues with it, I have seen first hand how people in Reno County have collaborated and come together to help others. That's what it is all about."


Other school leaders agreed.


"Being a part of the Pathways process helped us have a much more valuable approach to this pandemic and how to truly serve the needs of our families and community at this time," said Holy Cross Principal Amy Wagoner.


Union Valley Elementary Principal Paul Erickson also credits the Pathways partnerships with improved awareness of how to meet student health needs.


"I think Pathways helped me understand that wellness opportunities are maximized when they are made asynchronous. When we created a portal for staff to access activities and challenges on their own time and at their own pace three years ago, participation increased. We are learning this same lesson in our Continuous Learning model. I'm thankful Pathways helped instill that mindset in me three years ago!"


Learn more about Pathways to a Healthy Kansas in Reno County at healrenocounty.org/pathways.