Not about the pandemic? Windham Southeast schools will take it up in October

Tape will guide students on how to physically distance at Green Street School in Brattleboro. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — The Windham Southeast School District Board usually sparks headlines through its Climate Crisis Task Force or Social Justice Committee. This month, however, both have been temporarily benched from meeting agendas.

“Our biggest priority is, ‘How do we open schools safely?’” Superintendent Andy Skarzynski said in the era of Covid-19. “We’re going to push the pause button on other items of importance and can give them our full attention later.”

Postponing big-picture discussion is unusual for debate-centric Brattleboro and the nearby towns of Dummerston, Guilford and Putney. But it’s an example of the challenges Vermont educators anticipate with the return of in-person instruction.

“We just don’t know what’s going to happen and what we are going to have to do to adjust,” said David Schoales, the Windham Southeast board chair. “We’re not going to start doing other board business until we make sure we’re off to a stable start and everybody’s safe.”

For the Windham Southeast district, so much is new. Its 10-member board, the product of the state’s Act 46 school governance consolidation effort, is only a year old. Schoales won election as chair just this spring. Skarzynski began as superintendent this summer. And a hybrid schedule of classroom and home-computer teaching is debuting this month.

Then again, opening schools during a pandemic is uncharted territory for even veteran educators.

“The superintendents in the region have a weekly call,” Skarzynski says, “and many of us are finding the same challenges.”

At the most recent Windham Southeast meeting, board members learned that staff at Brattleboro Union High School and district elementary classrooms are focusing on coronavirus prevention strategies in the days before Vermont’s Sept. 8 statewide reopening.

“The emphasis has been on safety routines for everyone,” Skarzynski said.

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In response, board members asked about everything from what happens if a school nurse gets sick to who’ll be told if a student or staffer tests positive.

The oft-repeated answer: “It depends.”

“While we’re focused on reopening safely,” Skarzynski added, “we have to keep some level of attention to the things that are coming up.”

That’s why the board is scheduled to receive a report from its Climate Crisis Task Force on Oct. 7 and findings about student gender equity under federal Title IX on Oct. 21.

“We won’t be back to the former normal,” Schoales says as chair, “but I’m hoping we’ll have some semblance of stability soon.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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