Burlington aims to reopen in-person education in August

Tom Flanagan, the new superintendent of the Burlington School District, speaks at a press conference at Burlington High School on July 7, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Burlington School District is moving ahead with reopening in-person instruction by the end of August, with plans for everyday temperature checks and altered school schedules. 

Burlington middle and high schoolers can expect to attend school on alternate days, while pre-K and elementary school students could be in school every day. 

A final decision will be made by Aug. 4 as to what exactly instruction in the fall will look like, said Superintendent Tom Flanagan. 

The virtual meeting Wednesday night provided an overview of the district’s reopening plan that is based on state guidance and family feedback from a survey released in June, Flanagan said. 

“We’re a learning organization and we need to make sure we prioritize learning,” Flanagan said. “And we know that students lost learning last spring. And some estimates are pretty significant around lost learning that we want to get back into school and mitigate.”

Based on the survey results and the state’s best practices, the district plans to reopen pre-K and elementary schools for everyday instruction, while the middle and high schools will likely be on an alternate “A-day, B-day” schedule. 

Regardless of the specific plan, the district is aiming to start school Aug. 26, Flanagan said. 

Becca McCray, the school nurse at Edmunds Middle School and district Covid-19 coordinator, said in her professional opinion kids need to be in school. 

“I truly feel, as a nurse, that it is in our best interest to have in-person learning,” McCray said. “And we can do this if we all work together to do this in a safe and healthy way.”

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If schools reopen, there will be a daily symptom and temperature check, cloth face coverings required during most of the day, frequent student handwashing, a limit on the number of volunteers and visitors, as well as more regular deep cleanings, McCray said. 

In most school settings, a pod system will be used to better keep track of students and teachers to ensure proper social distancing as well as to facilitate contact tracing if a student or educator comes down with Covid-19, McCray said. 

The goal is to minimize the number of times large groups are together and to comply with state guidelines on social distancing in the classroom and at every possible moment, she said. 

For example, during recess, pods will stay together in assigned areas to limit exposure to other students, McCray said. Additionally, some classes may even take place outside to give more space for students and educators to spread out, Flanagan said. 

“As Superintendent Flanagan has said, we truly do need to work together to keep everyone safe and healthy,” she said. “And that means we really do need your help as the community to screen yourselves at home for any symptoms of Covid-19 and to stay home if you’re experiencing any of those symptoms.” 

The reopening plan has been in the works since May, Flanagan said. The district is in better shape than others across the country to open in-person instruction thanks to Vermont’s low number of Covid-19 cases, he said. 

One of the biggest challenges to in-person education will be transportation, he said. 

Many students within the district commute to school via Burlington public buses, Green Mountain Transit, which is operating at lower capacities. The district is working with GMT to make sure students can get to school, Flanagan said. 

“The health and safety requirements on buses are going to mean that we’re not going to have the same number of students on buses,” he said. “This is going to be a big issue for us that we need to come together as a community and work on.” 

Outside the classroom, the district will continue to offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner and after-school programs, including athletics, will likely take place in some way. 

Answering a question from a parent in the virtual audience, Flanagan said an entirely remote option is being designed for students who are immunocompromised or have family members that are. 

The district is also in the process of getting more technology for students, as whatever school will be like in the fall, there will likely be a hybridization of in-person and virtual learning. 

Another parent in the chat asked if students will always be expected to wear face masks, especially elementary-aged ones. 

Flanagan responded that district employees are working to find alternatives for students for whom masks are not an option and that may include face shields. Students won’t be expected to wear masks during lunch, but they should be worn as much as possible. 

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The family survey indicated that the majority of the 70% of the families within the district that responded support in-person education with the appropriate supports in place. 

“It’s a huge lift, we need everyone involved, but I do think we can do it,” Flanagan said. 

Thursday night the district will hold its second virtual town hall to explain the reopening plan to school district faculty and employees but all community members are welcome to listen in via Zoom or a livestream on YouTube, Flanagan said. 

Flanagan, who is only in his second week on the job as superintendent, said the district is up for the challenge. 

“I didn’t expect to enter into my first superintendent position during a pandemic,” he said. “But this is the important work in front of us and I’m looking forward to it.” 

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