Schools reopen across Vermont, each in its own way

This article was updated at 4:15 p.m.

Students across Vermont returned to school Tuesday morning, met with thermometers, masked teachers and queues at the entrances. 

And while each local district developed their own reopening plans, students of all levels were united by the experience of returning to classes that have been transformed since Gov. Phil Scott ordered schools to close on March 15. 

At U-32 in East Montpelier, principal Steven Dellinger-Pate, donning a blue and white mask, greeted students as they stepped off the bus and sounded an optimistic note. “I’m excited,” he said. “We haven’t been in school for six months. It’s time to get kids back in the building.”

However, for thousands of students, returning to school Tuesday morning once again meant opening their computers. A few districts went all-remote to start the year, while most others adopted hybrid models, mixing online and in-person learning to limit the number of people in schools at any given time. 

Randy Brown, a longtime computer science teacher at U-32, said he was relieved to be back teaching face-to-face. Balancing the health risks of the virus with continued isolation was a difficult needle to thread, he added, but teaching entirely on Zoom just didn’t feel sustainable.

“It’s exhausting to implement what we’re doing. But I think it’s overall hands-down the best option,” he said.

U-32 middle school students will be in school, in-person, full-time. High school students will alternate between a week at school and a week learning from home. On Tuesday, freshman and sophomores arrived on campus, and upper-classmen logged in online. 

State guidelines require schools to check students daily for Covid-19 symptoms before letting them in the building. At U-32, students were tasked with self-reporting symptoms using an app on their phones before arriving at school, and a thermal camera installed at the front of the building took their temperature as they walked in. 

Walkie-talkie in hand, student services director Lisa LaPlante stopped students as they arrived to cheerfully badger them: had they logged their health information into Base Camp yet? If not, could their friends help them do so?

“My mom totally reminded me to do it too,” one girl replied.

Vermont’s school reopening debate was not without drama — the state branch of the NEA gave the state a D+ for its preparation — and there are still local concerns about everything from staffing numbers to ventilation, disinfecting, and lunch delivery

However, the teachers union did not resist the governor’s plan to reopen schools this week, which was pushed back by a week to give districts more time to plan and prepare. Even Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, the Democrat’s nominee for governor, stopped short of calling for a delay to reopenings as he hammered Scott’s handling of the situation

State health officials are expecting an uptick in coronavirus cases as K-12 schools and colleges resume in-person learning. However, Vermont remains among the safest states in the country in terms of Covid-19 infection rates — three new cases were reported on Sunday, and no deaths have been reported in a month. 

At Montpelier High, which is doing its own spin on the hybrid model, students were split into two cohorts: one that will come to school in the morning, and one in the afternoon. That will mean only about 140 students in the building at any given time, according to principal Renée DeVore. The school will be basically empty of kids between 11 a.m. and 12:15 p.m., when teachers will have lunch and staff will deep clean classrooms.

Waiting for the day’s second batch of students to arrive a few minutes before noon, DeVore said things had gone well that morning. If anything, that’s what made this first day of school feel so markedly different from the rest – the school was “eerily quiet.”

“It was quiet when they left too,” she added.

Brigitte Savard, a French teacher, came outside to help do health checks with DeVore and said the morning had gone “better than anticipated.”

Things felt a bit stiff to start, she said, before falling into a rhythm. 

“We still have all the important stuff,” she said. “Which is basically the kids, and us.”

Matt McLane wearing mask
Matt McLane, the director of Flexible Pathways at Montpelier High School, wears a custom-made mask with the school district's name and mascots. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

As her peers lined up outside to get their temperatures taken, Montpelier High junior Daphne Lassner said she was happy to return to school in person. She has a lot of classes this year, she said, and learns better when she can get proper feedback and support from her teachers. 

“I’m really excited to be back. I was going to be really sad if we were online fully. I think this’ll work. I just hope we can stay in all year,” she said.

Lassner said remote learning in the spring went decently well, but she sometimes struggled to stay motivated. Plus, where she lives in Roxbury has spotty internet service.

“There were days when I was like: literally nothing is loading right now,” she said.

South Burlington High School is also operating on a hybrid back-to-school model. Students with last names starting A-L come to school Monday and Tuesday, M-Z last names come Thursday and Friday. Wednesday is all remote teaching and gives staff time to do a deep clean of the campus.

South Burlington High Principal Patrick Burke was wearing bright blue converse sneakers, which matched his medical gloves, as he greeted students and complimented them on  their own first day of school outfits.

“I mean, I don’t know that we’ve ever been more excited to have kids back,” Burke said. “It almost feels like we’re more prepared because we’ve had to pay attention to so many details.” 

That means teachers have to juggle in person and remote lesson plans simultaneously. “It’s pretty hard,” Burke said. “We’ve done a fair amount of training these past few days, actually the past couple weeks, has been relative to that challenge.” 

Classroom sizes have also been halved, and desks have been removed entirely — now, every student carries a fold up lawn chair to allow for more flexibility with seating. 

South Burlington parent Duncan Adamson said it’s all worth the effort so that students, like his daughter, can have a semi-normal high school experience. 

“I know that there’s folks who are frustrated with the communication, kind of just how late they were finding out about things,” Adamson said. But overall, he’s been happy with the way administrators have handled the precautions and the planning. 

“They’re trying to do their best to minimize the chance of having an outbreak,” Adamson said. “And so I understand that with that comes some unpleasant compromises.”

Districts in Rutland County have a diverse set of opening strategies. While Rutland City Schools offer mostly in-person learning, Mill River Unified Union School District, several miles away, is one of three school districts in the state that will only provide remote learning, except for students with special needs.

MRUUSD includes elementary schools in Wallingford, Clarendon, Shrewsbury and Tinmouth, along with Mill River Union High School. 

Fred Valastro, principal at Clarendon Elementary, home to around 155 students, said he spent the morning school, checking in on teachers who are holding online classes live from their classrooms, and responding to parents who need help navigating technology “snafus.” 

“We’re helping parents because, depending on when they grew up, all of this isn’t really second-nature to them,” Valastro said, noting that Tuesday was a “dry run” before beginning a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule with classes from 8 a.m. to noon. Teachers will meet virtually with students on Tuesdays and Thursdays to provide extra support on an as-needed basis. 

“We definitely don’t want them on the screen for the whole day, but we want them to be making connections with their classmates and their teacher,” Valastro said. 

At Brighton Elementary in Island Pond, Principal April Lane was expecting almost all of their 100 students to return to campus. “It helps that our numbers are so low down here,” she said.

Michaela Jokinen, a first-grade teacher at Brighton Elementary School in Island Pond, runs a health check and sanitization station as students arrive Tuesday morning. Justin Trombly/VTDigger
Michaela Jokinen, a first-grade teacher at Brighton Elementary School in Island Pond, runs a health check and sanitization station as students arrive Tuesday morning. Justin Trombly/VTDigger

Her school, which belongs to the North Country Supervisory Union, offered families two learning options: fully in-person or fully online. Only six students will be learning online, Lane said. About five others have switched to homeschooling.

Lane said most families in Island Pond seem comfortable with in-person schooling because of the area’s relatively few Covid-19 cases. The virtual option also wasn’t viable for some families, she added, because of poor internet access.

Melinda Gervais-Lamoureux, who was dropping off her two boys at the school, believes staff will solve whatever hiccups arise. If she lived in a more populated area, however, she “would’ve most likely considered the online option,” she added. 

Eli Sheltra, who was dropping off his brother’s children, was excited the two boys would be able to interact with their peers, and other adults, again. His nephews didn’t adapt well to remote learning, he added. 

“It was a challenge getting them to hunker down,” Sheltra said.  

Caitlin Wallingford, the school’s librarian and technology teacher, said the focus this year will be on “building up the relationships again” and students’ emotional wellbeing. But Wallingford said teachers will eventually have to contend with “summer slide” — academic progress lost during vacation — even more so than usual.

“We basically have six months of slide, rather than 10 weeks,” she said.

At Burlington’s Sustainability Academy, teachers were wasting no time figuring out where students were picking up. 

“Do you know how to spell your last name?” Deirdre Morris asked her class of third graders. “I don’t!” a student yelled back excitedly. 

In another second grade classroom down the hall, teacher Ricki Seno refreshed counting skills with her students. “What’s a quicker way to get to 50?” she asked. “Counting by tens,” a student responded. When the student successfully calculated the metric, clapping ensued. 

“I have chills,” Seno said. 

The school’s hallways were marked with taped blue boxes to separate students’ backpacks. Door frames had photos of teachers, with and without their masks on, to help children recognize them. Plexiglass divided shared workstations in classrooms. 

While Gov. Phil Scott has not taken a heavy hand in the reopening process, he has urged schools to reopen for as much in-person instruction as possible, and expressed hope that districts that adopted hybrid or remote learning would eventually move to more in-person instruction if the virus remained suppressed. And many schools hope to do just that.

While Sustainability Academy has adopted a hybrid model, like the rest of Burlington’s schools, new Superintendent Tom Flanagan said he’s been hearing from parents that they want their kids in school five-days a week, a goal he hopes to achieve fairly soon. 

“They want to be in school,” Flanagan said. “Our goal is to have success in the first few weeks. And by early October to be back in school, Pre-K-5, five days a week.” 

Nina Oropeza, principal of the Sustainability Academy, said she wasn’t concerned about kids struggling to adapt. They know what the rules are to stay safe: wash your hands, keep your distance and wear a mask. 

“Sometimes we don't give kids enough credit,” Oropeza said. “They're sponges.”

Grace Elletson, Emma Cotton and Justin Trombly contributed reporting

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, 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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