Education

After Christmas break, a patchwork of school reopening plans

Incoming ninth-graders and transfer students have their temperatures taken on the first day of school at South Burlington High School this fall. Schools continue to try to limit the possibility of Covid-19 among students and staff. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vermont school districts are again taking a scattered approach to the post-holiday period, with many returning to in-person or hybrid schooling when classes resume Jan. 4, while others pivot to remote learning for a week or more to allow families to quarantine. 

In the North Country Supervisory Union, a sprawling district that abuts the Canadian border, school will be back in session as per (pandemic) usual on the first Monday of the new year.

“Our return after Thanksgiving was very positive, as we’ve only dealt with a couple of positive cases thus far,” North Country superintendent John Castle wrote in an email. 

But some 80 miles south, Orange East Supervisory Union superintendent Emilie Knisley said her Upper Valley schools will go remote for a week after break. Orange East schools did not pivot to remote learning after the November holiday, but Knisley said she decided to change course for this break after a survey revealed at least 37% of families would need to quarantine.

The uneven landscape presents both problems and opportunities for local districts. In the Slate Valley Unified School District, superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell said her schools are trying to capitalize on nearby districts going remote by offering an extra $30 a day to substitutes who work during the first two weeks of January. 

A patchwork of post-Christmas plans could also create a child care crunch for educators, and in the Caledonia Central Supervisory Union, which is planning a return to in-person instruction as well, superintendent Mark Tucker said he is keeping an eye on the ripple effect of neighboring districts going remote on his own staff’s ability to report to work.

Most multi-household socialization is banned for the time being, as Vermont battles a stubborn second wave of the virus. And before Thanksgiving, Gov. Phil Scott encouraged schools to send children home to quarantine if they or their families reported gathering over the break against his orders.

The governor’s green light gave schools the license to enforce a mandate. But it also thrust them into the deeply uncomfortable position of policing the private lives of the families they served, and while many actively surveyed students or parents about their plans, some opted for a don’t-ask, don’t-tell approach.

Brian Ricca, the superintendent in the St. Johnsbury School District, did ask students or parents if they had gathered over the break upon their return after Thanksgiving. And many indeed had.

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Those conversations felt intrusive, Ricca said, and he didn’t believe he was in a position to judge what was best or most appropriate for families. 

“In my gut, this didn’t feel OK. And so I wrestled with, how do I maintain and uphold a commitment to public health? How do I learn from this experience?” he said.

After the Christmas break, the St. Johnsbury district will go remote for a period of two weeks. The district will return to meal delivery during the period of remote learning, Ricca said, and will provide free child care to a limited number of families, with priority for those who lack internet access.

The Kingdom East School District will go remote for two weeks after the end-of-year break as well. And in a letter to community members announcing the move, Kingdom East superintendent Jen Botzojorns expressed similar misgivings about the awkward situation schools found themselves in vis-a-vis the private lives of their students and families.

“After Thanksgiving, the role of the school put a wedge between creating positive social emotional learning, and policing rules of which we had no control,” Botzojorns wrote.

Research has continued to suggest that schools — given appropriate mitigation measures — are not major drivers of virus transmission, especially in the younger grades. But Covid-19 cases do pop up in schools, particularly when community spread picks up, and within-school transmission does happen.

It isn’t always possible to tell for sure who infected who. But the health department considers transmission to have taken place at school when these conditions are met: There are two or more Covid-19 cases among students or staff with known connections at school, their symptoms or a positive test occurred within 14 days, the individuals have not had close contact outside school, and there is no other more likely source of exposure.

Since the start of the pandemic, the state’s contact tracers have identified at least 31 cases where the virus spread inside a school, the Vermont Health Department said last Tuesday. As of that time, health officials had reported 195 instances where individuals carrying the virus were in school while infectious.

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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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