Many of Vermont’s K-12 students will return to classrooms on Tuesday for the first time since the onset of the coronavirus in March. The state’s approach to in-person education has been the subject of widespread debate, and preparing to reopen schools during the Covid-19 pandemic has sparked unique challenges and solutions.
Gov. Phil Scott on Friday emphasized the unusual circumstances around reopening schools during a historic pandemic. “There is no playbook for this,” he said.
In recent weeks, VTDigger’s education reporter Lola Duffort has tracked the latest developments as schools around the state prepare to welcome students back. Here’s what to expect.
All over the map
The state has taken a local-control mentality to reopening schools, and reopening plans are all over the map. A majority of districts have opted for some form of hybrid learning, with a mix of in-person and remote learning days, and the option for children to attend school online full time.
Throughout the summer, the Scott administration made clear it would like schools to reopen in the fall, citing the importance of in-person education and the relative safety given Vermont’s low Covid-19 infection rates. But administrators and rank-and-file educators alike have complained that the state’s laissez-faire approach has left schools on their own to create plans, many of which do not align with one another.
“It seems like (the Agency of Education) has kicked these really, like, crucial decisions that really need to be coordinated at the state level back to districts. And now everyone is scrambling,” Tevye Kelman, a social studies teacher at Randolph Union High School, told VTDigger in early August.
Will staff come back?
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School administrators said late last month that they continue to worry about a surge in leave requests, early retirements or resignations sparked by fear of the coronavirus. But even as teachers begin heading back to school, many feel the needs of the economy and of parents are being elevated above their own families, health and safety. And they complain that they haven’t had much of a voice in discussions about how and whether to reopen in the fall.
Schools are planning to implement now universally familiar safety protocols — plexiglass in high-traffic areas, temperature checks, masks. But with transmission of the virus apparently significantly reduced outside, some teachers and administrators are considering turning to an already popular practice in many schools: education outdoors. For one, White River Valley School in Bethel planned to hold in-person instruction outside most of the day, every day, until at least Thanksgiving break.
Schools around the state are worried about whether obsolete air-handling systems could spread the coronavirus, and are planning urgent projects. When the pandemic made HVAC systems a top priority, legislators set up a $6.5 million grant program to help schools repair and upgrade their heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems to meet Covid-19 health guidelines. About 300 schools are interested in applying for grants, said Jody Lesko, the director of programs and implementation. That’s about three-fourths of all schools in Vermont.
To help schools meet the demand for remote learning without hiring an avalanche of new teachers, the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative is scaling up. The online school, based at the River Valley Technical Center in Springfield, will create a pool of educators who want to teach all their courses online. Jeff Renard, principal of the cooperative, said in mid-August that he expects about half of all Vermont school districts to participate.
For many parents, a hybrid school reopening plan is either too much in-person school — or too little. And that’s led to a surge in applications to homeschool. According to the Agency of Education, 1,634 families filed paperwork with the state by July 15 to enroll in homeschooling for the upcoming year. That’s a significant increase from last year, when only 932 enrollments had been received by that date. (Ted Fisher, a spokesperson for the agency, cautioned that the final numbers would likely change.)
A “herculean” child care effort
Just weeks before the first day of school, the state announced a plan to build a new system of child care hubs to serve school-age children on remote learning days. As of Sept. 1, the state was in the final stages of approving 12 hub sites in eight counties — three each in Addison and Chittenden, and one each in Franklin, Lamoille, Rutland, Washington, Windham, and Windsor. Twenty more applications for hubs were close behind in the pipeline. Human Services Secretary Mike Smith called the effort “a herculean task.”
What are special ed students owed?
When schools closed their doors in the spring, educators did what they could to adapt special education plans to remote learning, and advocates say some students even thrived. But virtual school was inadequate for most, and many students with disabilities noticeably regressed. Now, schools face the difficult task of making students whole. And how to do that for students who need special education remains an open question.
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