In the first-floor women’s bathroom of Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School on Tuesday, Pooja Muthuraj and half a dozen other students placed tampons into a mailbox-like dispenser.
The seven 6-by-8-inch containers, installed across the school’s bathrooms and filled with donated period products, ensure students won’t face the inconvenience or embarrassment of trekking to the nurse clinic for emergency situations or in case of an inability to afford their own pads or tampons.
“It should be part of the school’s budget. It’s half of their student body that has this need,” said Muthuraj, a 15-year-old sophomore. “If you have toilet paper in school bathrooms, if you have soap, if you have other necessities, why wouldn’t you have sanitary products?”
The Virginia State Senate agrees. As Mutharaj and her peers got to work Tuesday, the body unanimously advanced a proposal from Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, that would make Virginia the fifth state to require that public schools provide free menstrual supplies in restrooms, alongside California, Illinois, New York and New Hampshire.
The measure is not likely to face opposition in the House of Delegates, said Republican Party of Virginia spokesman Garren Shipley, although school systems typically bristle at the prospect of an unfunded mandate.
The bill, SB232, leaves it to the schools to figure out how to pay for the $13 dispensers and additional menstrual supplies. It initially only applied to schools where at least 40% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch, a rough gauge of poverty.
“It should be shifting it from nurse’s clinics. If there’s a problem in a year, I’m happy to go back and assess that,” Boysko said.
Students at Maggie Walker said some of their peers were uncomfortable making the walk to the nurse’s clinic on the first floor. The time it takes to walk to the clinic ranges from about three minutes from the third floor to about a minute-and-a-half from a first-floor classroom. A rough estimate of the time it takes to walk to a bathroom from a classroom is 16 seconds.
The products placed in the schools’ bathrooms on Tuesday were donated by Sylvia’s Sisters, a nonprofit focused on offsetting period poverty by providing feminine hygiene products to schools and shelters. The organization provided 506 tampons and 1,536 pads for the boxes, to supplement the clinic’s supply.
Jennifer Taylor, president of Sylvia’s Sisters, said girls who lack means or access to hygiene products run the risk of developing infections or toxic shock syndrome. About one in five teens reported struggling to afford period products during a 1,000-person study conducted by research firm Harris Analytics.
Fairfax County Public Schools, one of Boysko’s districts, piloted a program in November across 37 schools to have pads and tampons in bathrooms using the existing budget.
It’s unclear what Boysko’s proposal would mean for local school budgets. Max Smith, assistant director of operations at Maggie Walker, said any increased costs need to be anticipated and examined.
“If there’s no funding attached to it, that would be something to consider in the next budget cycle,” Smith said. “Public school budgets are very tight. It would be a challenge.”
Hanover County Public Schools spokesman Chris Whitley said in an email that as a rule, the district opposes unfunded mandates. With about 400 education-related bills on the table, Whitley said school officials hadn’t talked about the potential costs of Boysko’s proposal.
In Henrico County Public Schools, nurses across the 70-plus schools already order feminine hygiene products as needed, according to spokesman Andy Jenks. He said that since that already exists, the district would be able to make adjustments as necessary.
Smith said Maggie Walker students who need monetary assistance can take products home for the weekend. The clinic’s director said no one has approached her with these concerns, but products are available with no questions asked. Students can be embarrassed to voice the need.
“Since it’s not talked about, people don’t realize that there is such a thing as period poverty,” Taylor said. “[They] don’t realize that if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, then you surely do not how you’re going to manage your menstrual hygiene.”
The dispensers installed Tuesday feature a QR code sticker designed to compile data on why students were in need of period products, if they have ever gone without them because of financial constraints, and if they prefer pads or tampons.
Muthuraj sees the code as a means to raise awareness about what she sees as a human-rights issue.
“It’s almost like helping people that don’t have access to food,” Muthuraj said. “You don’t have to have experienced hunger on your own for yourself to help them.”
The handwritten letter from a former student to teacher Henry Wheeler was warm and chatty and included a request that Wheeler write a letter of reference to a college on his behalf.
The letter came into Wheeler’s possession only recently — almost 53 years after it was postmarked in Biloxi, Miss., in February 1967.
But it wasn’t the U.S. Postal Service’s fault. The letter, addressed to Wheeler at Douglas Freeman High School, where he taught in the industrial arts department until his retirement in 1991, apparently had been delivered to the school and then lost for more than five decades, perhaps in a cabinet or drawer. Somehow, the well-preserved, unopened envelope surfaced at the school in the fall.
One thing led to another which led to another retired teacher who knew where to find the 88-year-old Wheeler, and the special delivery was made.
Wheeler recognized the name — William J. “Jerry” Williams — but couldn’t recall the face. After all, he taught thousands of students over more than 30 years.
But utmost in his mind was this:
“I thought, ‘What does he think of me?’ He wrote this very nice letter asking for my recommendation, and here I am 50 years later.”
No worries, says Jerry Williams. Everything worked out.
“To tell you the truth, I had actually forgotten about it,” Williams said.
But it all came back to him when Wheeler showed him the letter earlier this month at VFW Post 6364 in Henrico County, where Wheeler and Williams reunited. They invited me along.
I became involved a week earlier when another Freeman alumnus, Bobby Grubbs, called to tell me about the letter after Wheeler had talked about it at a weekly lunch attended by friends with Freeman connections. At that point, no one had figured out any details about Williams or where he might be today.
A search of Ancestry.com turned up Freeman yearbooks from the 1960s and Williams, who was a 1966 graduate. A few clicks on Google led to a person of the same name in Hanover, which I shared with Wheeler, who placed a call.
When the phone rang, Wheeler saw an unfamiliar area code — Wheeler’s cell number traces to the few years he lived in North Carolina following retirement — and didn’t pick up. Then he listened to the voicemail.
“I heard the voice and thought, ‘I’ve heard this voice before,’” Williams said. “He sounds just the way he always sounded to me.”
Wheeler laughed. “North Carolina accent. I can’t shake it.”
Wheeler told Williams about the letter, got reacquainted and agreed to meet for lunch.
The VFW was an appropriate venue because both Wheeler and Williams are veterans. Wheeler served in the Navy: “When I was in school, I read a book about John Paul Jones and I was hooked,” he says. “I wanted to go to sea.”
Williams was in the Air Force, including a year in Vietnam. When he wrote the letter to Wheeler, he was stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, on the Gulf Coast.
While the letter was asking Wheeler to write a letter of reference to a college, it was not for admission. Williams said there was a college near the base, Gulf Park College for Women, and anyone from the base who wanted to date one of the students off-campus needed two letters of character reference.
Williams recalled going on a date or two — “They were all very nice, very polite,” he recalled, but the young women didn’t seem all that interested in the Air Force men — even though Wheeler didn’t come through for him.
“I was too late,” Wheeler said with a laugh.
Williams said he had written to Wheeler because he had been one of his favorite teachers.
“The thing that always made Henry Wheeler stand out in my mind was the empathy he had for all of us who were lucky enough to be his students,” said Williams, who had Wheeler for classes in mechanical drawing and architectural drawing. “He had a strong knowledge of drafting and was able to clearly impart this knowledge.
Above all, however, I have not forgotten the respect showed me while I was his student.”
For a couple of hours over lunch, Wheeler and Williams reminisced about their Freeman days and caught up on where the 54 years have gone since Williams graduated.
After almost four years in the Air Force, where he was an aircraft electronic navigation aids technician, Williams built a career on his Air Force experience: for WWBT-TV, the city of Richmond and finally the Virginia State Police, where he worked in Northern Virginia in the telecommunications division. He retired in 2002.
Williams, 71, is still deeply involved with amateur radio, an interest that arose in his teen years when he obtained his ham radio license.
Wheeler went to work at Freeman in 1959, having been hired after impressing the school principal by using his welding skills to repair the principal’s snow chains during a storm. Over the years, he declined opportunities for administrative jobs because teaching was his first love.
His work with students has hardly gone unnoticed. In 2019, he was inducted as an honorary member into the American Institute of Architects in Virginia. Wheeler figures more than 350 of his students went on to work in architecture, engineering or some similar professions.
Keeping such a record of former students seems pretty indicative of a teacher Williams described as “very precise and meticulous.” Williams is not surprised that Wheeler felt compelled to find him after discovering a letter lost for more than 50 years.
“This reminds me how fortunate I was to have Henry as a teacher and recall the positive influence he had on my life,” he said.
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With more teachers using social media, most notably Pinterest, to find curriculum, the Virginia Department of Education wants to create a new statewide system where teachers can find vetted classroom materials.
The idea is part of Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed budget, which includes $1.2 billion in new education spending, that is in the hands of the General Assembly. Teachers from across the state are rallying Monday to ask for more.
The initiative — formally the Virginia Learner Equitable Access Platform — would create a depository for teachers, allowing them access to curriculum and other resources from other school districts and organizations across the state.
“Everyone is creating all these great resources and they’re trying to push it out to school divisions one by one,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane. “This will allow us to hub everything in one place so all the best resources are right there at a teacher’s fingertips.”
Individual school districts would still responsible for their own curriculum, Lane said, with the proposed system supplementing what they already have.
Take a teacher in Richmond, for example.
That teacher could find — in one place — resources from African American history museums across the state or a different school system that has a lesson plan developed for a specific subject.
“When we think about the power of our large school districts to share their resources and how that could help our smaller, our rural or even some of our school districts struggling with accreditation, we just think it’s a great opportunity to build capacity in the commonwealth,” Lane said.
Teachers going online to find instructional materials has become commonplace.
Nine in 10 elementary school teachers and roughly half of middle and high school teachers seek online resources for their classroom, according to a 2016 Rand Corp. report. The most popular websites are Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers, where educators buy, sell and share original classroom resources.
Parents and students would also have access to the system, according to an overview of the proposal by the state Education Department.
“It has the potential to be a really good resource,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, a teacher who heads the House subcommittee primarily tasked with teaching and learning. “It’s the right step. It’s needed.”
Northam’s budget allocates $7.1 million for the program in the budget year that starts July 1 and $6.1 million in 2021-22.
While the governor’s budget includes money for the initiative, teachers across the state are coming together Monday to ask for more.
The Virginia Education Association is set to rally teachers and school officials at noon Monday at the Bell Tower on Capitol Square, an event that drew an estimated 4,000 people last year. On the same day as the protest last year, the House of Delegates announced that it planned to include a 5% teacher raise in its budget, a proposal Northam initiated that legislators eventually approved.
In this year’s proposed two-year budget, most of the proposed $1.2 billion in new education spending is intended for required technical changes. The remaining money would fund a 3% teacher raise in the second year of the budget ($145.1 million), $99.3 million for more school counselors and $140.4 million to increase the “At-Risk Add-On” fund, which gives incentive money to districts for every low-income student, among other things.
The budget would restore some of the reductions schools saw during the financial crisis of 2007-09, from which schools are still recovering.
When adjusted for inflation, the state spends an average of $5,749 on every student, compared with $6,225 in the 2008-09 school year, according to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond-based research organization.
“We’re shortchanging our students, our educators and our future,” said VEA President Jim Livingston. “We are demanding that the General Assembly reverse its budget cuts and give Virginia public schools the resources our students deserve.”
Richmond Public Schools opted to close school for the rally after roughly a third of the district’s teachers asked to take personal leave days to participate. The large number meant the district wouldn’t have enough substitutes to fill the empty classrooms, leading Superintendent Jason Kamras to cancel the day of school a week before the rally.
“As a result, nonparticipating teachers would face unreasonable class sizes that would make meaningful instruction nearly impossible and potentially create significant safety concerns,” said Kamras, adding that no additional days would need to be added to the school calendar because it already has extra time built in to account for inclement weather and other “unforeseen circumstances.”
Kim Bailey, a first-grade teacher at George Mason Elementary School, said she’s glad the district has the day off.
“Our kids need to know that we are fighting for them,” she said.
The district is providing bus shuttles to Capitol Square. The shuttles will leave from the Arthur Ashe Athletic Center, Huguenot High School, George Wythe High School and Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.
Had the rules been different when he was a college athlete, Phillip Sims believes he could have earned money for his ability to play football. Sims was a quarterback at the universities of Alabama and Virginia, where receiving compensation for one’s athletic talent is forbidden by the NCAA.
But a proposal before the Virginia General Assembly would change that for collegiate athletes in the state. House Bill 300 from Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, would give student-athletes the chance to earn compensation that results from the use of his or her name, image or likeness.
“I think it’s deserved,” said Sims, who is now the football coach at John Marshall High School in Richmond. “They put in a lot of man-hours to generate revenue, and they’re well-deserving of a piece of that pie.”
Simon’s bill, which would take effect in July 2024, follows landmark legislation passed in California in the fall that would give college athletes the chance to make a profit off their talent.
After calling the bill an “existential threat,” the NCAA reversed course weeks later when its board of governors voted unanimously to allow college athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness.
California’s bill is set to become law in January 2023. That gives the NCAA and its universities three years to form a response.
Simon’s bill would allow college athletes to have agents to manage their marketing and prohibit the NCAA and conferences from ruling the player ineligible if they’re paid for their name, image or likeness. The bill would continue to bar colleges from paying recruits for their name, image or likeness.
“Everybody else makes a lot of money [off of student-athletes],” Simon said. “Yet they’re not the people who are profiting off that.”
Virginia Commonwealth University said it supports Simon’s bill to keep VCU’s athletes on par with those in other states that have passed similar legislation. Roughly half of U.S. states have introduced legislation that addresses the issue, according to The Washington Post, and a similar bill is being considered at the federal level.
“We look forward to following the progress of HB 300 as our elected officials in the state legislature deal with this complicated issue,” said VCU athletics director Ed McLaughlin in a statement. “We need to continue to fully support the student-athletes in a manner consistent with the regular student body without losing the value of an athletics scholarship.”
Athletics directors at UVA and Virginia Tech declined to comment. On Wednesday, lobbyists for the two schools told members of a House subcommittee, which unanimously backed the bill, that the universities did not have a position on it but encouraged the state to study its impacts.
Carla Williams, UVA’s athletics director, is part of the NCAA’s working committee that is studying the issue. The committee is charged with crafting legislative proposals within the current structure of the NCAA's rules. Joe D'Antonio, commissioner of the Richmond-based Colonial Athletic Association, says his his conference will support the working group however it can.
"The CAA stands ready and prepared to help in that process as well as to comment and provide feedback once the drafts of those proposals have been released by the Division I subgroup," D'Antonio said. He declined to take a position on HB 300. In October, John Swofford, commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference, said California’s law is "extreme" and "pushes the envelope."
NCAA President Mark Emmert said during his annual “state of college sports” speech at the NCAA convention on Thursday that a “clear consensus” is growing to let players get paid, ESPN reported. The NCAA committee working on the issue is expected to present a report to the NCAA’s governing board in April. It’s important to keep the pressure on the NCAA, Simon said.
“Once we pass a bill like this, we’ll finally get some meaningful action,” he said.
Simon’s bill comes with a level of bipartisan support. Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, sponsored a similar bill that was combined with Simon’s on Wednesday.
“Our student-athletes are being exploited right now. It’s just completely out of whack,” said Miyares. “I don’t think you should lose your freedom of contract just because you’re a student-athlete.”
Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, has made a similar proposal in the Senate.
There is some indication how the law would affect superstar athletes. Basketball player Zion Williamson would have been able to sign a shoe deal with Nike as a freshman at Duke, for example. Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa could appear in a credit card commercial.
What kind of effect it would have on every other college athlete, it’s difficult to say. While Sims doesn’t think he would have made tons of money as a collegiate quarterback, he believes it would have been more than nothing.
The House Education Committee is set to take up Simon’s bill Monday. It’s expected to be referred to the Appropriations Committee.