Education

As schools look to open Tuesday, teachers union gives preparedness a D+

A multi-media classroom at the Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington is one of many classrooms with no windows. Ventilation could be a problem as schools reopen on Tuesday. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Vermont-NEA has given the state a D+ in its readiness to reopen schools next week. 

“Without a statewide approach and adequate state resources to properly implement these plans, health and safety measures vary widely,” Darren Allen, a spokesperson for the union, said Thursday at a press conference. “Safety is not negotiable, no matter where your school is located.”

Local union leaders graded their own districts’ reopening preparedness in multiple categories: health and safety; testing and tracking; adequate staffing; ventilation; contingency planning; and efficacy of Agency of Education guidance. The NEA, the state’s largest union, represents 13,000 educators across Vermont.

Vermont students will all return to school on Sept. 8, although what school will look like will vary substantially from district to district

The Agency of Education, alongside the Health Department, has released guidance outlining minimum health and safety standards, which require, for example, that all school employees and students wear masks. The state has delivered 1,515 PPE kits to local districts, including over 75,000 masks, gloves, and surgical gowns, and nearly 800 gallons of hand sanitizer.

But the union and many educators — administrators and teachers alike — have faulted the state government for failing to coordinate a more unified reopening strategy and providing too little on-the-ground support. 

Despite the press conference’s deeply critical tone, the union noticeably did not call for delaying the start of the school year once again.

“We think that further abrupt changes may cause even more chaos,” Allen said. “What we are saying is, we are imploring our partners in the state, we are imploring the Legislature, we are saying work with us. There are deficiencies we need to take care of.”

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One Northeast Kingdom educator, Leanne Harple, said during the press conference she worried schools in the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union, where she works, wouldn’t be ready to open. The supervisory union lacks adequate personal protective equipment, and it doesn’t have a full-time nurse in every building, she said. Because only three substitutes are available to cover all seven schools, her colleagues are saying they’ll come in even if they’re sick.

In one school, Craftsbury Academy, an isolation area for children showing symptoms of the virus is being constructed in the same room as the school’s food preparation station, “with only a sheet to separate these sick children from the cafeteria workers putting together school lunches.”

“The shortcuts that are being taken right now are dangerous and unacceptable,” said Harple, a language arts teacher at Hazen Union High School in Hardwick.

In an email, Orleans Southwest superintendent Adam Rosenberg said the school had indeed built two “isolation chambers” using plastic sheeting in Craftsbury Academy’s common room. But Rosenberg said these were adequate health measures, and the isolation rooms were separated by multiple layers of floor-to-ceiling plastic.

“Schools have had to create these isolation rooms in buildings where space has always been a premium,” he wrote.

Secretary of Education Dan French said he feels “very confident” about the state’s readiness to welcome preK-12 students back next week, and pointed — as public health authorities repeatedly have when urging a return to in-person instruction — to Vermont’s low positivity rate, which has consistently remained well below 1%.

“The health conditions in Vermont arguably are some of the best in the world for reopening schools,” he said.

French questioned why the union released its report card now, to reiterate criticisms it has been making since he rejected their proposal to establish a statewide reopening commission.

He conceded there will be variability across the state. But he defended the quality of the state’s health guidance — which he noted both public health experts and the union had input on — and said the state did not actually have the option of imposing a statewide approach.

“I don’t know what we could have done to bring everyone to the same sort of mythical starting point. I don’t know if that’s achievable,” he said.

Problem areas

The union’s survey found that most respondents think their districts have enough custodial staff, but only 18 percent said there are enough bus drivers and monitors to implement safety procedures, and 71 percent said their schools did not have enough substitute teachers to cover Covid-19 related staffing shortages.

Administrators, too, have expressed anxiety about being able to staff their schools for in-person instruction, and have highlighted substitutes — which are in short supply even in non-pandemic times — as an area of particular worry. Visitors to the Mount Abraham Union School District’s website, for example, are currently greeted with a bold-faced pop-up: “Substitutes Wanted!!!!!!”

The union’s report card also gave dismal marks to the state’s preparedness when it came to ventilation. Only 22 percent of respondents said their districts had inspected HVAC systems and ordered the necessary repairs, and two-thirds said windows aren’t operational in all classrooms.

The Legislature set aside $6.5 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to help schools pay for HVAC updates and repairs during the summer, and hundreds of schools are scrambling to apply for reimbursements and get the work done. But costs are expected to outstrip available funds (lawmakers are strongly considering additional dollars), and many of the repairs won’t be complete before students return.

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Vermont is not alone in this problem. A federal watchdog report published this summer found that more than half of the country’s 13,000 school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems, according to the US News and World Report.

Asked if there was anything in the NEA’s survey he agreed with, French said ventilation is certainly “cause for concern,” and speaks to long-deferred maintenance in the state’s aging schools.

“Is that a key condition for reopening? Our health expertise says it’s an important consideration. But is it like an essential issue? No, not necessarily,” he said.

Correction: The original version of this story said 71 percent of respondents said their districts have enough substitute teachers to cover Covid-19 related staffing shortages. The correction: 71 percent of respondents said their districts do not have enough substitute teachers to cover Covid-19 related staffing shortages.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is VTDigger's education reporter. Prior to Digger, Lola covered schools for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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