Tech, health and safety top issues, but creativity flourishes at Otter Valley Union High School

By LEE J. KAHRS

BRANDON — When people ask, “How’s it going” eight months into a global pandemic, the response is often, “OK, considering…”

Otter Valley Union High School Principal Jim Avery agrees, but says the pandemic is both inspiring creativity and challenging everyone in the school.

“One of the plus sides is to see the flexibility, patience, creativity and hard work by everyone,” he said. “To be in this situation, you have to have a real sense of compassion and understanding, and I’m seeing that.”

Otter Valley Principal Jim Avery

Pandemic education

Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union schools closed abruptly in March when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit and quickly went to an all-remote learning model for students. District staff and educators then spent the summer planning to improve and expand a phased education plan to open the schools back up in the fall and implement a hybrid remote/in-person model.

That was implemented in September. It began with an all-remote learning plan except for kindergarteners through second graders, who attended school in-person, masked and all. Third through sixth graders then transitioned to in school learning in October, then middle and high school students moved to in-person learning as well. To maintain the necessary social distancing requirements, students alternate attendance in the high school two days a week, with Wednesday being a remote learning day district-wide, allowing staff to catch up, regroup and prepare lessons.

The remote learning option has remained available to parents who do not wish to send their children back into the school buildings, so teachers are teaching online and in front of a classroom simultaneously.

RNeSU Superintendent Jeanne Collins said she’s very pleased with the way the schools and the students have responded to this very unusual set of circumstances.

“It’s not a normal year, and no one can possibly promise it will be a normal year,” she said. “But having the kids in school at least two days a week has been great. Did I think last spring that we’d be as far as we are? No, so I’m pleased and the goal would be to maintain this for the rest of the year if it went well.”

SUB: The challenges

Ask parents, teachers, students or principals what the biggest educational challenge of this pandemic year has been and the answer will be internet connectivity.

Broadband access and reliability has been an issue in Vermont since the advent of the cell phone, and the associated issues have made remote learning very challenging for students, teachers and parents across the board. Thousands of students logging into school on Chromebooks everyday has put unprecedented demand on local internet systems, leading to glitches in connections, audio issues and other problems.

“It’s our biggest challenge because the learning stops,” Avery said. “I know the IT folks are working hard to fix those issues, and I know it’s complicated. Out IT person, Whitney Christie, is extraordinary. When the district says they need a tech person, I say, ‘No, you can’t take this person.’ I wouldn’t trade her for anybody.”

Avery said long before the pandemic, he said that internet service should be like water.

“You turn it on and it works,” he said. “But we have had various issues that have stopped learning and created a lack of confidence in the system. It’s been a difficult challenge and a problem.”

Connectivity is another glaring challenge with the remote learners that remain in the district. Connectivity to people, that is. Avery said there are several remote learning students that have been hard to reach.

“The nature of remote learning makes it difficult to have those interpersonal relationships we need,” he said. “That’s one of the downsides to all of this. We’re concerned about the kids we’re unable to connect with.”

Avery means that literally. He said there are remote learners that are not logging into class everyday and have not been in contact with the school regularly.

“There are a lot of kids where that’s not happening, and it’s an issue around the state.” He said. “We’re looking at ways to improve that. People are literally traveling around and finding and talking to these families, trying to keep those connections going.

Attendance in co-curricular classes like physical education, languages, art and music is also lagging, which Avery said has been frustrating due to lack of guidance from the state.

“There has been a lack of guidance getting those things of the ground,” Avery said. “I’m frustrated with the lack of state guidance about how to get co-curriculars going.”

SUB: The highlights

But it is the creativity and determination of staff and students alike that has in many ways outweighs the frustration caused by pandemic restrictions for Avery.

“Watching (theater teacher) Jeff Hull having to do a theatrical performance, watching him figure out how to do theater with COVID-19 restrictions,” he said. “Watching teachers adjust to be able to focus on certain elements that have to be taught given the constraints, setting up classes with cameras and the difference teaching the students in front of you… It’s truly amazing. It’s challenging and it’s stressful as hell. We’re constantly reinventing.”

Avery’s amazement goes to his students as well.

“The kids in the building have been really wonderful about following the COVID restrictions. I’m impressed how well they’ve come in and said, ‘This is how we operate.’”

With every challenge comes a chance to learn and improve, and Collins said improvements to the district’s education system have already come from the pandemic experience.

“At the end of the day, education will be improved because of what we learn,” she said.

She said the need for teachers to plan their lessons more completely and more ahead of time has led to an improvement in preparedness.

Another plus is that long overdue grade level standards are now being identified at each grade level.

Collins also said that the remote learning experience has highlighted the fact that some students thrive in that educational model.

“Some students thrive in the online model and we need to acknowledge that some kids learn differently,” she said.

Sub: Getting through this together

The same conversation that begins with “How’re you doing?” often ends with, “We just need to stick together and we’ll get through this.” No one knows how long the pandemic will last, not do we have any control over when that happens. We are left with each other and our communities. That couldn’t be more true than in the halls of OV and every other school. There is a sign in Avery’s office that he said sums up the current philosophy, and it puts people and community first, “Relationships before rigor, grace before grades, patience before programs, love before lessons.”

“That’s the only way we’ve been able to do the work we’re doing,” Avery said. “I rely on that.”

Collins agreed.

“Yes, we are in this together and we are doing it well as a total community,” she said. “Unless the virus settles into our region, we are pleased to be back in school and moving forward.”