Governor announces mandatory first day of school pushed to Sept. 8

By LEE J. KAHRS

BRANDON — The Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union last week unveiled its plan to educate the area’s children this fall, as did several other districts, but superintendents are facing many uncertainties with limited guidance.

Gov. Phil Scott announced Tuesday that the mandatory first day of school is being pushed back to Sept. 8. That’s just one less uncertainty facing superintendents all over Vermont. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still questions regarding space issues, scheduling, staffing and concern over vulnerable employees.

Harwood Unified Union School District Superintendent Brigid Nease penned an open letter outlining those concerns and taking state officials to task for pushing to re-open without addressing the questions at stake. The letter has been shared repeatedly on social media all over the state.

A hybrid education model

After weeks of work and research, RNeSU Superintendent Jeanne Collins has proposed a hybrid learning model that has only the district’s youngest students attending in–school classes.

“It was 6-8 weeks of trying out new logistics, looking at new data,” Collins said. “We had settled on a partial in-school model until 10 days ago,” when the school district changed to its current proposal, which is as follows:

• RNeSU Kindergarten through second grade students will attend school from 8 a.m. – noon, Monday- Friday, with remote learning options available to all students. Parents can access live stream video of morning classroom lessons.

• Students in grades 3-12 will access remote learning five days a week with no in-person education. Collins said she chose this model after several weeks of assessment and research.

“Medical science tells us that the younger students have a very low risk of transmission and are the most in need of in-person instruction with their classroom teacher,” she said. “The morning will focus on literacy, math, and social skills with lessons in other content areas to be sent home for afternoon lessons on a consistent basis.”

• Every student will be issued a Chromebook laptop.

Collins said she recognizes that not all students do well with full-time remote learning. Those students who need more in-school support, such a special needs students, and those with individualized learning plans (IEPs), will be able to sign up for in-school support. Priority will be given to the following criteria:

 • A younger child whose parent(s) work and there is no other supervision available.

• A child who does not have internet access even with the school Chromebook/hot spot device.

• Students with specific social/ emotional or learning needs.

A survey to those parents and guardians of students who may require more in-school instruction went out this week.

In-school support may be half day or whole day and transportation will be available. In-school support will look like the following:

• Elementary students will be grouped in pods with physical distancing in place.

• Masks or facial coverings must be worn at all times unless on the playground with distancing or eating/ drinking.

• A non-teaching adult will be assigned to monitor each pod and to support the remote learning of the students.

• The adult will also structure the day with time on the playground or outside (elementary), lunch, and other down time activities. K-2 students may choose this option after their in-person learning ends. 

• Middle and high school students may self-refer to come to the school for support as needed or may be referred by the teacher or school. 

• Middle and high school support will run from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. with transportation available.

• Middle and high school support will be set up as a learning center, with an adult to assist with the remote learning,

• Special education students may have individual plans as designed by their IEP teams. 

On other matters, Collins noted that cafeterias and gymnasiums will be closed to student use, and meals will be eaten in the classroom or outside as per state and federal guidelines.

Parents and guardians are encouraged to transport their children to school themselves if at all possible, but school bus transportation will be offered. Students will be required to complete a daily health screening before getting on the bus, and may not attend school if they have a temperature or a positive answer to health assessment questions about possible exposure to COVID-19. Students may also be assigned to cluster stops for pick up in order to safely conduct health screenings.

There will be assigned seats on the buses, and all students, aides and drivers will be required to wear masks while on the bus.

After school programs are still a work in progress, Collins said.

Opening day

Collins had settled on a school opening date of Aug. 31, but said that changed with Gov. Phil Scott’s announcement Tuesday that the first day of school will be Sept. 8.

Collins added that the district’s hybrid model is flexible, and if conditions improve and the data supports increasing in-person learning the district would do so.

“This is an opening plan and we’ll see how it goes,” she said, “but primary teachers in kindergarten through second grade really wanted to be with the little kids. It’s much safer at younger ages, the data states that the younger kids don’t transmit the disease as much as older students.”

This initial model will also give students who have traveled this summer with their families or hosted visitors from out of state time to settle in safely to a routine with daily health monitoring. That said, Collins is more than realistic about the roller coaster effect of the COVID-19 on any education plan.

“If the data supports it, and the logistics are in place, third and fourth grade would be the next group to come into the school,” Collins said. “The goal is to build to in-person education safely as the data allows it to happen, with the realization that we will be at full closure at least once during the coming school year. That’s just being realistic.”

The journey to a decision

Collins said she and her staff had been measuring classrooms, setting up desks 6 feet apart, trying to figure out how many students they could fit in a class.

“We took out bookcases, even the teachers’ desks,” Collins said. “We could not fit all of the students. Some rooms we could, most we couldn’t.”

Collins said she also knew there will be parents who will not be sending their kids back into the school buildings. That, coupled with the logistics of mandatory daily health screenings each morning, were contributing factors to the decision to go with a hybrid model. Collins said she considered a two days in, three days out model for Otter Valley Union High School as many other schools in the Champlain Valley are doing, but decided against it.

“We would still have over 400 people in the high school building under that model,” Collins said. “We also have a high number of vulnerable employees I feared I would lose under that option.”

In fact, staffing concerns are quickly becoming the top challenge for superintendents. Some Vermont teachers and staff concerned about the virus with an in-school teaching model have said they would request sick leave and paid family leave, making it difficult to organize staffing as the new school year approaches.

“That would have meant putting non-certified subs in this education program which was not very high-quality education,” she said. “That’s O.K. for a day or two, but it’s different than getting a substitute for a year when a teacher cannot teach. I’m worried about getting subs because we’re not supposed to be bringing new people into the building.”

That was another reason Collins went with a hybrid model.

“It felt like we were chasing the wrong tail,” she said. “ We were trying to do something we were not able to do safely or with quality.”

A letter gone viral

The day after Collins presented the RNeSU plan, Harwood Superintendent Brigid Nease shared her open letter to parents and guardians from the supervisory union website. It was shared widely on social media, and covered by statewide press.

“Public school administrators are highly trained in what to say and when to say it publicly,” Nease wrote in her opening. “I find myself throwing a bit of that training aside as I write to you today.”

The superintendent went on to detail the myriad unanswered questions she has regarding everything from differences in each district’s plans to staffing concerns to childcare issues.

“So, we are told to reopen the schools,” Nease wrote. “That said, in most places, I think we are going to try to reopen school, and I think we will fail in ways that may have permanent, unrecoverable repercussions for our students, school systems, and community. And why am I making such a strong, worrisome statement? That is because this is a very significant statewide problem and it requires a significant statewide solution. The big elephant in the room is operational, having nothing much to do with the ‘how to’s’ of safely bringing students and staff into the building based on transmission of the virus and epidemiological science. It comes down to workforce and childcare issues that cannot be solved at the local level.”

Nease said superintendents all over the state are fielding letters of resignation, requests for leaves of absence, Family Medical Leave, Emergency Family Medical Leave,  Emergency Paid Sick Leave, Exemption status, and leave under the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act, which provides up to 12 weeks of leave for employees unable to work because their child’s school is closed. 

“The truth is most school employees are scared to death they will get sick (or worse), bring the virus home to loved ones, have a student in their care become ill, or experience the death of a coworker,” Nease wrote. “However, the even bigger reason for leave requests is the untenable position this state has put school employees in by creating homegrown reopening schedules that do not align.”

She mentioned that many school employees have children who may attend school in another district. The state directive to school districts to chose their own education models makes it so neighboring districts offer different schedules. Then there is the question of childcare for pre-school age children and whether that will be available to working parents.

In closing, Nease said that while she feels the fear shared by many of the parents in her district she has personal reasons wanting to open the schools.

“My grandson who will be entering 4th grade and attends Thatcher Brook and I am so concerned and pained about his isolation and loss of learning,” Nease said. “I would give anything if I could just reopen these schools for all our children.”

Back in Rutland Northeast, Collins stands behind the education model she and her staff have created, knowing that the pandemic is a moving target. She said she does not feel she is being too careful. “If I’m wrong and things improve, we’d be able to bring kids back into the schools slowly,” she said. “And I’d love to be wrong. Then, everybody is healthy and safe and we have perfected a new system of teaching.”