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More Schools Stock Tampons and Pads, But Access Is Still a Problem

There are pads and tampons in Wyomissing Area High School in eastern Pennsylvania. But it’s complicated to obtain them, according to Karla Aguay, a sophomore.

If you don’t have anything on hand, and your friend doesn’t, you either need a quarter for a dispenser in a bathroom. Or you have to go to the nurse’s office and request free ones.

“It should be more accessible,” Karla said. “In the bathroom, they should have the supplies they have at the nurse, just in the bathroom [at no cost]. It just takes time getting to the nurse’s office, going to the bathroom, going back.”

Aguay and her friends usually carry, and share, the products they bring from home, she said. But there are some students whose families can’t afford products at home, and are limited to what the school provides, as well as the complications in the way.

Aguay’s home state of Pennsylvania could be the next to dedicate millions of dollars for schools to provide menstrual hygiene products for students, with advocates arguing access to the materials could keep the students who lack access to the products in classrooms—a particularly pressing concern for educators trying to make up ground after COVID-19.

The legislation, which would establish a $3 million grant through the state’s education department for low-income school districts, passed the Democratic-controlled state House earlier this month, with all Democrats voting favorably, joined by more than a dozen Republicans. It goes on to the GOP-controlled Senate.

The funding would come at a time when more students are chronically absent. Studies show that students from low-income families were some of the hardest hit by in-person learning disruptions during COVID-19 pandemic closures. Researchers say that having menstrual products accessible in schools will keep low-income students, struggling with period poverty, in class.

“Students might be going through their day using a sock or a wad of toilet paper to make it through the school day,” said Lacey Gero, director of government relations for the Alliance for Period Supplies, a program from the National Diaper Bank Network that does period advocacy work and distributes products and funding to support access to period products. “No student should have to think about if their proxy item is failing them, or where their next product will come from.”

Should the measure pass both chambers, Pennsylvania would join at least 27 other states and the District of Columbia in requiring stocking of free products at schools or providing funding to stock them, according to data collected by the Alliance for Period Supplies. Laws vary for what grades and schools should stock products, sometimes extending to include elementary schools.

What happens when students don’t have products in school

When students don’t have access to the products, they report missing school, coming late, or leaving early, according to a 2019 study. Lack of access affects their ability to learn in class, too, said Christopher Cotropia, a professor of law at the University of Richmond, who authored the study.

Even for schools that provide pads and tampons, the study found that sometimes students need to pay. But often many schools have so-called “gatekeepers,” he said: Front office administrators or school nurses. Students reported feeling embarrassed having to ask, he said.

Karla, who is a youth advisor with Girl Up, a girl-centered leadership development initiative, said that even she feels awkward sometimes asking for the supplies at the nurse’s office if there are other people around.

It’s similar at Cameron Vroman’s school, Norwell High, in Massachusetts, where she said she’s fortunate that her school stocks supplies, paid for out of pocket by educators, as the state doesn’t require schools to have pads and tampons, nor does it make funding for them available directly to districts.

She helped distribute dots for teachers to stick on their doors, indicating they have period products in their classrooms, so students don’t have to walk down to the nurse’s office—which is out of the way and time-consuming, leading to missed class time, she said.

She and her mother, Susan Vroman, are volunteers for Free., an organization that distributes period products to schools throughout the state. Working with Free., Cameron and her mom have been proponents of legislation that would expand access to menstrual products in schools, as well as homeless shelters and prisons. The bill passed the state Senate unanimously, but hasn’t been taken up by the state House. Democrats control both chambers.

Cameron, who is finishing up her sophomore year, has stuffed envelopes, collected petition signatures, and done club outreach to advocate for passage.

“I think we should all be fighting for this, personally,” she said. “I don’t think anyone should have to choose between food, bills, and products people need daily.”

Stocking the pads and tampons in schools, in public, non-restricted spaces like bathrooms, could have a “spillover” effect, the University of Richmond’s Cotropia said.

“If you provide products for free or they’re easier to access, then maybe this individual—and this is a feature, not a bug—can take some home, so they’re able to get needs met while at school and at home,” he said. “That can help education as well—homework, or studying; they’re getting basic needs met to have the ability to do that.”

Often, legislation garners bipartisan support

That is sometimes where the partisan divide comes in. While period product bills have passed unanimously or with bipartisan support in some legislatures, there can be sticking points with earmarking funding. But there’s sometimes better “political economy” to provide social services through schools instead of subsidizing the products altogether for everyone, said Cotropia.

In Pennsylvania, state Republican Rep. Stephanie Borowicz criticized the bill on the floor as a Democratic attempt to “provide everything for you.”

Roughly 11 states require period products in schools without offering funding for them. That leads to an uneven uptake between schools with greater resources and funding and those with tighter budgets, Cotropia said.

Virginia, which passed its legislation in 2022, did so without funding. Holly Seibold, a Democratic delegate, has tried to get funds added to the budget in the years since.

“I’m still hearing a lot of stories that they’re never stocked in bathrooms,” she said.

For poorer districts, she said, it’s on school boards to find the money to fund it, creating a burden with already tight budgets in places that serve populations who need the products most. But opponents are concerned that the products will be wasted.

“They think that pads and tampons are expensive, and they are,” she said. “That’s why we have the inequality to begin with.”

Funds can help close the gaps, advocates say

In Pennsylvania, the proposed measure would allot $3 million to split into grants for public schools where a quarter of the student population is eligible to receive free or reduced-cost lunch.

A number of states make funding available for schools to purchase pads and tampons, without mandating access. In North Carolina, which distributes funds on a first-come-first-served across the state, the state’s department of education said demand outpaced available funds. According to a report published earlier this year, the department could only fund roughly 30 percent of the requests.

“What we’ve seen over the years is that those states that have provided funding in the budget along with a mandated requirement, they’re having more successful implementations, and students are seeing products more consistently in schools,” said Gero, from Alliance for Period Supplies.

Schools are uniquely positioned to address students’ health needs, said Dr. Bhuchitra Singh, director of clinical research for the Division of Reproductive Sciences at Johns Hopkins. Not only does providing the products increase access to quality, safe products, but it provides an avenue for education on how to use the products and about menstruation itself. It can help destigmatize periods, he said, and provide some economic stability by taking the cost burden off students and their families.

Period products are taxed in about 20 states, according to the Alliance for Period Supplies.

“When you look at the numbers, a person [who is] making $200,000 a year, I don’t think it’s a big concern for that person, whether they can afford period products or not,” Singh said. “But if it is a person who is not making that kind of money, and has to make a decision between whether they can buy period products or have food for themselves and the people they support, it becomes a critical question there.”

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