State issues guidelines for reopening schools

Students in Heather Sikorsky’s third grade class jump, slither and crawl during an exercise at the Georgia Elementary School on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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When students head back to school this fall, they’ll be wearing face masks and getting temperature checks.

New guidance issued by the Agency of Education and Department of Health June 17 sets guidelines on hygiene, social distancing and containment strategies as schools prepare to welcome students back to in-person instruction for the first time since schools were adjourned in March.

Last week, Gov. Phil Scott’s administration announced that Vermont schools will reopen in the fall. The guidelines, drafted by a panel of health and education experts, sketch out a back-to-school experience that will look very different than usual.

Facial coverings will be mandatory. The guidelines spell out more than a dozen different instances when students and staff will need to sanitize their hands, including when they arrive, when they come back in from playing outside, and whenever they switch rooms.

All students and staff will need to go through a daily health check, including answering questions about how they feel and having their temperature taken. Kids that take the bus will need to go through screening as they board, and others will do so when they get to school.

The guidelines encourage keeping the same group of students together through the day — perhaps having teachers cycle through different classrooms instead of students. Schools could broadcast instruction through technology to students in classrooms around the building. Schools could also “require students to stay in an assigned section of the school yard as opposed to mingling with other classes,” the guidance states.

Staff who are 65 or older or who are at risk for severe illness will be encouraged to check in with doctors to see if they should avoid in-person contact. The guidelines also note a need for additional staff in some places — like bus monitors to ensure kids are following distancing guidelines while going to and from school. Visitors and volunteers will be restricted in schools, and field trips limited to places where guidance can be followed.

Any students who are showing symptoms should be excluded from school activities, according to the guidelines. If a case is confirmed, then the space where the student spends time needs to be closed off and disinfected.

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For special education students and students at high risk, the guidance recommends creating a team, including the school nurse, to come up with an individual plan so they can safely access school resources.

The guidelines set out a multi-tiered approach to reopening, with the plan of starting at “Step II” — with more strict rules for class sizes and meal service. “Step III,” the most relaxed stage, would allow for students to return to lunch in a cafeteria, though with restrictions. “Step I” — with schools closed and instruction delivered remotely — looks like the system the state has been operating in since March.  

“It’s trying to be as flexible as possible in a situation full of ambiguity,” Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals Association and a member of the panel that wrote the guidelines, said Thursday.

Elementary school students head back to class after lunch and recess at the Coventry Village School on Sept. 5, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The state has to allow for regional differences, Nichols said; an outbreak in one area may cause a school to go remote while others in the state do not. Individual districts will need to figure out how best to implement the guidelines in each school, he noted, drawing on support from statewide associations, school nurses and others. He also said the guidance is likely to change over time.

“Each district will put together teams to decide how best to implement the guidance in a way that makes the most sense for them,” Nichols said. Some larger school districts need to put in place schedules for alternating the days students attend, he said.

Don Tinney, president of the Vermont-NEA, said the guidelines are “just the beginning” of a complex reopening process.

“The real heavy lifting of this planning is going to happen within local school districts,” Tinney said.

The teachers union is convening its own task force to look at issues related to reopening.

Questions abound, Tinney said, including about ensuring students have equal access to education, when some may have to take two weeks off to quarantine. Getting the required disinfecting cleaning products and the protective equipment for staff is another challenge. Then there are issues with the physical set-up of schools, from managing the flow of student traffic through the space to keep distance between students to making sure there’s sufficient access to handwashing stations.

“We need to re-engineer the school,” Tinney said.

Even with the guidelines from the state, questions remain about how in-person education will function amid efforts to contain the spread of this virus.

“If we have to go to this extent, is it really safe to be opening schools?” asked one elementary school educator, who asked not to be named because of concerns of retaliation from their district.

While many proponents of reopening schools say that returning students to the classroom is important not only for education but for mental health support, the educator questioned whether the rules would exacerbate stress and mental health concerns.

The full guidance is posted on the Agency of Education’s website.

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