Education

Scott moves mandatory school start date to Sept. 8

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

This article was updated at 5:23 p.m.

School districts will reopen Sept. 8 this year, a week later than many had planned, under an executive order Gov. Phil Scott announced Tuesday. 

It will be up to the school districts to decide whether to offer remote learning, in-person instruction, or a combination of the two – although state officials strongly recommended in-person instruction for children under 10. 

Scott, along with his Health Commissioner Mark Levine and other health experts, urged districts to prioritize getting younger students back into classrooms. 

“We want schools to take the time to get this right, so students can hit the ground running,” Scott said at his Tuesday press conference. “Without that in mind, I’ll issue an executive order later this week setting Tuesday, Sept. 8, as a universal start date for students.”

Though the state sets the minimum number of days students must be in school, districts usually set their own calendars, and Vermont’s schools have traditionally jealously guarded their local control. But many education officials have sought a more coordinated approach to reopening preK-12 schools in the pandemic, and both the Vermont NEA and a majority of the state’s superintendents support pushing back the school year.

The issue of the school starting date, and the structure of the instruction, has been an intense focus for parents, teachers, and others in Vermont this summer. Most school districts have said they were ready to adopt hybrid schedules that would blend some in-person instruction with remote learning, according to preliminary plans released by superintendents in mid-July.

Secretary of Education Dan French emailed organizations representing superintendents, principals and school boards last week asking if they would be OK with the Sept. 8 start date. 

“This is uncharted territory that acknowledges a considerable amount of uncertainty and anxiety,” French said at Tuesday’s press conference, adding that starting after Labor Day “gives us a bit of extra time to make these preparations to take advantage of this time to make sure the new school year can be successful.”

The amount of remote learning versus in-person instruction that students will receive differs significantly from district to district. And while many plan to offer a fully remote option for every family that wants it, that’s not a guarantee all schools say they can make. Access to Wi-Fi is still a concern in many areas.

Critics of plans to open for in-person instruction have said it would put students and teachers at risk of catching and spreading Covid-19, and that superintendents are bowing to pressure from the Scott administration and businesses whose employees need the child care provided by school in order to return fully to their jobs.

Superintendents have also asked for more guidance.

“Under the guise of local control and the need to respond flexibly to the differences in each district, leaders were told by state officials to basically go figure it out,” Harwood Unified School District Superintendent Brigid Nease wrote July 25 in an open letter that was widely shared on social media. “Many superintendents and principals truly cannot sleep at night.”

Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott discusses the state’s Covid-19 response at a press conference on July 1. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The debate about school reopening dates is going on nationally and has become divided along political lines, with many teachers and unions accusing the Trump administration of putting the economic recovery before the safety of school workers and students.

Rebecca Bell, a pediatric critical care physician at the University of Vermont’s Children’s Hospital, urged Vermonters to “take their gaze off the national scene” and instead trust local leaders.

“The national conversation around school reopening has raised legitimate concerns from teachers and families. And that is because much of the country is not at a place where they can safely reopen schools. But Vermont is uniquely poised to be moving toward in-person learning because our case positivity rates are so low,” Bell, who emphasized she was not employed by the state, said during the press conference.

The Centers for Disease Control is pushing for schools to reopen, saying that if children become infected with the Covid-19 virus, they rarely suffer severe symptoms. The CDC notes that a lack of in-person instruction disproportionately harms low-income and minority children, those with disabilities and others who might not have access to the private instruction and parental help that many children will experience this autumn. 

Levine, the health commissioner, began Tuesday’s press conference with a strong endorsement of sending kids back to school. 

“Based on the trends that we’ve been seeing for some time now, I continue to believe we’ve come to a point in our response to this virus that allows us to bring our children back to school in a carefully considered, measured and safe way,” he said. “In Vermont, this is the right time to open schools.”

Elementary and preschool-aged children are unlikely to learn effectively online, and research suggests they may also be less likely to catch and pass the virus along to others. 

That’s led the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine to recommend schools prioritize younger grades and students with disabilities in their reopening plans. The Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics has also called on schools to prioritize full-time, in person attendance for all students preschool through grade 5 and students of all ages with special needs.

Certain Vermont school districts are planning to bring younger children back for more in-person hours than the older grades. But many are not.

Scott said that while “Vermont’s data, and science, and the expert advice” suggest schools could offer more in-person instruction than many are currently planning, he respected local decision-making.

“I understand the need for caution. And the need for school staff, parents, and children to ease into this. To gain confidence. Just like we’ve turned the spigot slowly in our economic restart, it makes sense for some to start with this more conservative approach,” he said.

Some education officials have raised concerns about having enough employees to adequately staff in-person instruction. French acknowledged those concerns Tuesday, and emphasized the need for locals to control the decision-making process.

“Schools or certain grades in schools might have to close for lack of staff, such as teachers, bus drivers, and paraeducators. The decision to give school districts the flexibility and choosing among in person remote or hybrid instruction is an operational necessity,” he said.

About 30% of school staff in Vermont have said they’re at high risk for Covid-19, according to the NEA. About 42% are over 50 years old, and 12% are over 60.

The Vermont NEA has pushed for more involvement in the school reopening process. 

“The biggest concern that teachers around the state have had around the summer is we really haven’t been consulted very closely by the administration or Agency of Education about how school reopening is going to happen,” said Will Adams, a teacher at Hardwick Elementary School who is president of the local Vermont NEA group. Adams said teachers and support staff are under contract to work 185 days, including 10 in-service days. 

“If the start date is being pushed off, and there are, say, only going to be 165 student days, but we are still expected to report at the regular time, ostensibly to plan and figure out how this is going to work, that would mean they are suggesting we are obligated to more in-service days than we are under contract for. They need to negotiate that with us,” said Adams. “I’m not suggesting that would be a problem.”

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Anne Wallace Allen

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