Superintendent working out the details of an evolving pandemic education plan

By LEE J. KAHRS

BRANDON —With less than a month to go before the 2020-21 school year begins, plans to offer a hybrid remote learning curriculum five months into the COVID-19 pandemic have been presented. Now it’s down to executing the details, according to Rutland Northeast Superintendent Jeanne Collins.

So, are school administrators ready?

“The data is stable, so doctors say now is the best time,” Collins said. “ I don’t know if I agree since we have tourists coming in and out.”

Collins also cited the recent coronavirus outbreak at a summer camp in the Manchester area and other camps in recent weeks, even though Gov. Scott has delayed the opening of public schools in Vermont until Sept. 8, after the Labor Day Weekend.

“That’s (the outbreak at the Manchester summer camp) a good example of something happening fast, so I don’t know,” she said. “I think until all the tourism is over, if we do a slow start, then I think we would have a chance to settle in and see how it plays out.”

ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

Dichotomies are flying. Some within the medical community are advocating for full-time, in-person education nationwide, at least for those students in elementary school. But coronavirus cases and positive tests are on the rise in children nationwide. An Aug. 8 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics revealed that 97,000 children have tested positive for the coronavirus disease between July 13 and July 30.

In Georgia, where schools re-opened last week to in-person education, at least 260 students and eight teachers were quarantined after multiple students and teachers tested positive for COVID-19 after the first week of school.

Collins said she did not agree with that subset of the medical community advocating for full school enrollment in all grades regardless of the level of community infection, even though that is a view that was once popular in the Deep South, though the growing number of cases there is prompting a change of heart.

The majority of the medical community does seem to agree that the lack of community and in-person interaction is damaging to children, particularly the youngest students in kindergarten through second grade, and Collins agrees that can be problematic and should be considered.

“The longer the kids have no connection with school, I think that’s harmful,” she said of that age group.

FOLLOW UP ON SURVEY

The current plan for opening and the ability to adapt to coming changes in the OVUU district will be informed by the results of a recent online survey of parents and guardians. The district collected 760 responses from families, and Collins is already planning a follow-up survey.

She said she plans to glean what she can from a recent principal’s meeting and constant monitoring of COVID-19 data from the Centers for Disease Control and state Department of Health to gauge how to move forward.

One key question in the survey regarded those students who need one-on-one support and have Individualized Education Plans. The district is offering in-person blocks in the schools certain days and times of the week with special educators and caseworkers.

One survey question asked parents and guardians if they thought their child would access in-person services. Roughly 240 students, out of 1,200 students or roughly 20 percent, said they would.

“Now, we analyzed and we realized that the survey didn’t capture all the information we need. How many kids can we serve? We have to look at staffing and we have to look at the numbers.”

There are also the daily health screenings that will occur at the school each morning for all students entering the buildings.

And staff concerns are paramount at this point. RNeSU is hiring as the district plans for the school year.

“We’re down two staff members,” Collins said of school employees who have already given notice. “But we have a lot of people asking about leave, so next month scares me.”

Superintendents around the state, like Collins, are facing a potential staff shortage as educators consider leave out of the fear of contracting the virus and bringing it home to their families, or simply have difficulty working a full-time teaching job and somehow managing childcare responsibilities with their own children.

From the state level, there is concern there will not be enough staff to implement the plans each district is putting into place.

REMOTE LEARNING 2.0

To review, throughout the RNeSU students attending Kindergarten through second grade will be physically attending class in the schools most mornings with teachers live streaming for those students whose parents do not want them doing in-person learning.

Students in grade 3-6 will be on a totally remote learning plan, but one that is much more structured that what students had last spring. Collins said there has been weeks of professional development around a remote learning plan that integrates accountability and more closely monitored work. She said one thing teachers had to learn is to give them structure as well.

“What we didn’t have in place (last spring) was how to structure online learning,” she said. “It was all over the place, and many of the teacher didn’t set boundaries for themselves and worked countless hours,” adding that even her own children’s teachers in another district struggled.

Districts implemented online remote learning lessons within two weeks of the start of the pandemic in April, with real time professional development. Now, teachers are being asked to develop lesson plans a week in advance in six-week blocks and have learned to set boundaries for themselves. Professional development will continue throughout the school year as well, Collins said.

“We’ve identified standards of learning for six weeks at a time for each grade level consistently across grade levels and content areas,” she said.

The middle schools students will be assigned to teams and participate in a single Google classroom. Both middle and high school students will maintain a regular four-block schedule, compacted without study halls, physical education and lunchtime. Students will be expected to do independent work, but will be monitored much more closely by their teachers.

“Each student is expected to call in and virtually connect to each block of classes,” Collins said. “So, when we return to in-person learning, the schedule just expands.”

COMMUNICATION IS KEY

Collins has maintained regular email contact with parents since the pandemic began in March, and this week started a regular Friday email to update parents and guardians on the constantly changing and evolving school plan.

She’ll also be writing a more comprehensive plan for school opening that includes more details about lunch plans and health screenings. And that follow-up survey should be going out soon.

“We’re into the details now,” she said, “so I don’t feel we’re ready, but I feel good to have a plan.”