The Deeper Dig: The road ahead for Vermont schools

Students arrive on the first day of school at South Burlington High School on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Deeper Dig is a weekly podcast from the VTDigger newsroom. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlaySpotify or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

Conversations around the impacts of Covid-19 in schools tend to revolve around the risk of an education gap, framing the pandemic as a “lost year” for students. But some experts are pushing back on that narrative, arguing that the adaptations schools have made this year could provide a road map to a more inclusive education system.

In a callout for questions before a VTDigger panel discussion last week, Ben, a teacher in Worcester, wrote, “I think we all recognize the limitations of remote learning. … However, there are so many bright spots, too, and those conversations and celebrations are rarely discussed.

“Parents in our program largely report that their children are thriving. They love school, and the remote experience has been largely successful. How do we reconcile these two pictures? What can we take from the good and mitigate from the not-so-good?”

Panelists said the answer largely depends on how school districts design their learning programs for the future, how the state measures academic achievement and how a half-billion-dollar pool of relief money gets spent.

This week’s podcast includes the full discussion with Amanda Garces of the Vermont Human Rights Commission and founder of the Education Justice Coalition of Vermont; Deborah Lisi-Baker, formerly of UVM’s Center for Disability and Community Inclusion; Michael Martin, director of learning for the South Burlington School District; Celilo Bauman-Swain, a junior at Champlain Valley Union High School; and Bruce Pandya, a senior at U-32 High School.

Below are excerpts from the discussion, edited for length and clarity.

This has been a year of debate in schools. There’s been debate about the health and safety of schools during Covid. There’s been debate about how much learning is happening and how much learning is being lost, social/developmental opportunities, extracurricular activities. 

Celilo and Bruce, as students, you are at the center of all of these debates, so I want to start by asking, what’s this year been like for you? What have been the challenges and what have been the successes?

Celilo Bauman-Swain: It has, for me, been a mix of good and bad. I’m deaf. And when the pandemic started, some of my classes became easier, because having teachers pre-record videos and upload them to YouTube with captions actually allowed me to access stuff more. Some classes got even harder, like social studies and history, where it relied on live oration. And so I had a mix of good and bad in terms of accessing learning.

One of the biggest initial difficulties was with internet access. I didn’t have good WiFi, and so I not only had a harder time in some of my classes accessing the learning, but like, the visual and the audio wouldn’t be synced. It’s simple things like that that made it much, much harder for me to access my education. 

I think the biggest part for me, though, was the emotional aspects. Because my favorite part of school is my relationships with my teachers, and I consider teaching an act of love, and it was just really heartbreaking to have to kind of leave that relationship and go into Zoom. I lacked motivation and lacked interest without my relationships to my peers and my teachers. 

Bruce Pandya: U-32 is doing hybrid learning. We’re doing one week in school and one week out of school. At first, it was difficult to get things done during the remote weeks. It felt very undirected, and it was just overall a challenge. But I think that as I got more into the year, I think that it became much easier. Overall, the experience has been challenging, but not extremely. 

There have been some classes that I haven’t been able to take — I started the year off taking chorus. But it’s, of course, very difficult to do chorus over Zoom. We didn’t really get to do much actual singing, for example. And I ended up having to drop that class, because it was just difficult to keep up with remote work in a class like that. I think that overall my experience has been all right, but obviously not ideal.

Michael, you’ve written recently about the pitfalls of framing this year around the negative impacts to students. What’s the danger there? And what alternate narrative would you propose?

Michael Martin: It’s been a tough year and a half. Families have suffered. Students have suffered. Schools have scrambled. I want to acknowledge there’s been lost instructional time. There have been serious challenges to access — when you think about broadband access around our own state, when you think about communication with families, especially families whose first language isn’t English. There’s been too much screen time. There’s been the challenges around learner engagement and especially this feeling of being disconnected. 

However, I think that the answer is not to throw a bunch of remediation at students. I think there’s an incredible opportunity right now for us to rethink how we want to rebuild community in schools, and how we want to redesign school based on what we’ve learned and some of the silver linings that we just heard from our students.

Deborah Lisi-Baker: I think that it’s important to put this last year in the context of things like disability and mental health and trauma issues in a longer span. Because even in 2019, if you look at the statistics of remote youth students and their experiences with mental health and well-being, a very significant number of students were dealing with depression or a feeling of hopelessness. If I remember correctly, it’s 31% of high school students and 24% of middle school students expressed those things in our health department study. 

I think it’s important to realize that many of the things that are really being exposed as challenges are things that were challenges before. They’re just more visible now. 

I think that for some students, they’ve talked about how they felt really challenged by the social disconnect. So that’s been a real challenge for students — and not being able to be face to face, that’s a huge challenge for younger students. But at the same time, for some students — if they’ve been in environments where they felt bullied, or they had to fight to be heard or to feel like their identity was respected — then there’s been a bit of relief. So they’re balancing two different things, both the challenges and the potential losses, but also some of the reprieve, just having a little space for themselves. And for some students, that’s worked really well. I’m hoping that we can take some of the innovation and tremendous commitment that educators and families and students have shown and use it to move forward even more in terms of where we need to be.

Amanda Garces: Many of the issues that have sprouted have roots. They’ve been there all this time; they just hadn’t been up as we see them now. Covid really exacerbated some of these issues that we’ve had for a long time. All of these conversations around mental health, social/emotional learning, having inclusive environments, all of that, were conversations pre-Covid. 

I think that the beauty of this moment is to really look at: How do we transform? How do we shift the system? How do we say: It wasn’t working before. We cannot be talking about coming back to normal — normal wasn’t good for many kids in our districts. It’s really shifting the conversation. 

Why can’t all learning in schools be individualized and personal? What’s the barrier to just getting the kids who need certain things those things, and getting the kids who need other things those other things?

Michael Martin: It’s been a goal of progressive education to get there for a long time. One thing that I’m finding helpful, and I think increasingly in the field we’re seeing folks trying to move towards, is this concept of Universal Design for Learning. The idea being that, instead of designing for this mythical average student that doesn’t exist and having this standardized, industrial model of education, and trying to shoehorn students into that, to always design for learner variability. 

It comes to us from architecture, actually. You can make a building that’s not very accessible, and then have to do a lot of accommodations to the building. Or you can build it with wide doorways, with push buttons, with ramps, from the outset. And so that’s the concept: Can we design from the outset for inclusion and for learner variability? Instead of having this standardized model that we have to keep jury-rigging to try to catch people or retrieve people? 

I really appreciated Celilo mentioning something as simple as an asynchronous lesson that you can revisit. So if the student is able to say, “OK, I’m going to do five minutes of this now, and 10 minutes of it later, or I can hit rewind on this video, or I can turn on closed captioning…” I think that’s where we’re trying to go in the field is towards designing from the outset for learner variability, and for inclusion, and that’s very different than doing this industrial thing, and then trying to intervention our way out of it.

Deborah Lisi-Baker: I was really delighted that Universal Design for Learning is being discussed, because that comes from architecture, but also from the disability rights movement. And it’s been so exciting to meet with teachers during this time and have them talk about how Universal Design has really reframed how we think about learning, and how we think about the learning environment. 

It’s something we — as disability advocates who believe in inclusive design, both in buildings and in spaces, and how we communicate and how we learn — had been saying for a long time. I think the pandemic has forced us to look at what it means in virtual learning spaces and in other spaces. I’m hoping people will come back reinvigorated, whether you’re in a shared physical space, or you’re doing work virtually, to really think about inclusive design and Universal Design and what it means for individualized learning.

We know we’ve got all this federal aid money coming in. I want to get at this question of, specifically, where should the money go? What should we be actually spending those dollars on to get at some of these philosophical shifts that you all put out? 

Amanda Garces: We should be spending money on a lot of things, but I think we do see there is a really important need to fulfill right now around social and mental health support systems. I think the way that mental health is envisioned also needs to shift. 

There are some things that we learned in the pandemic, which is the mutual aid networks that sprouted throughout our state, that really fulfilled really specific things for the community, needs that weren’t being taken care of — food, money, gift cards, whatever was needed was there. And I think if we applied a mutual aid system to mental health, we can create some really beautiful and rich support systems for students. 

We don’t have enough counselors, we do not have enough therapists. Well, if we don’t, then let’s create some systems that can support that. And that will require money, will require time. We have beautiful experts in our state, we have beautiful people willing to create programs, we have mentorship programs for Black youth, that really can support their emotional health. I think it’s going to be really important to fulfill those needs on mental health.

Celilo Bauman-Swain: When it comes to changes I want to see, a lot of them are cultural changes. It’s really difficult for me to envision how funding helps that, but I think probably the system that needs to be set up in order for us to understand our own culture and have the system set up to shift it is restorative justice. 

I think in terms of funding that, it goes into setting up student groups, and getting research from students on what their experiences are with the disciplinary system, getting rid of [school resource officers] — and I don’t know how funding fits into that specifically. But that’s what I see as the first step to shifting culture.

Deborah Lisi-Baker: One of the things students have said in a few meetings I’ve been at recently is, sometimes they find their mentors or their support from people in the schools who’ve been key — but sometimes it’s not coming from the places they would expect to go to get it. It’s the people who’ve just been really open and really care about the kids. And so one of the things I hope is that we won’t have a few people sitting in a room and deciding what the local plan looks like. But we will really be using the people in the community, the students, and the parents and the allies as resources and as experts to reframing how we want to use the critical dollars we’re getting, and the ones we already have. 

Many of our local programs and our regional networks have been really underfunded. This is really an opportunity to say, how do we do it right? As Celilo says, it really takes a whole different reframing of culture, so that we’re really making these strategies as effective for all students as possible, and that they can really represent the face of the communities and the people that actually live there.

Michael Martin: Thinking about beyond the walls of school — how are we engaging all stakeholders in the wider community? — is of the utmost importance. And it’s something that’s really hard for schools to do — to move beyond not just a broadcast, to actually pulling folks in and building models that allow for those voices to be part of the decision-making process. And not just like a random community forum every once in a while. It’s really hard. And so I think that the investment needs to go into those structures that will facilitate that. 

I’m a little concerned, as somebody who works in schools, about the expectations for this funding, and maybe a bit of a gold rush mentality right now. I think the allocation for South Burlington is probably going to be around $3 million, which is a lot of money, spread over three years. When you take away the allocation that’s already been decided that needs to go towards summer school and extended school day programming, and then when you put some facilities upgrades in there, and then you look at the size of the annual budget of a district the size of South Burlington — all of a sudden, it’s not transformational money. 

Fortunately, there’s flexibility built into this. The initial plans, I understand, are due to the Agency of Education by June 1. I don’t think that all this community participation is going to happen magically in the next month. However, I think there’s an opportunity, because districts can resubmit plans and update them in an iterative way. Hopefully, we can start getting those structures in place to bring all stakeholders into this process over the course of the next few years. In the next few weeks, I don’t know that that will happen, just from a logistical standpoint. So I think now is the time to start planning for ways to bring people in and make them part of that process.

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Mike Dougherty

About Mike

Mike Dougherty is VTDigger’s digital editor. He is a DC-area native and studied journalism and music at New York University. Prior to joining VTDigger, Mike spent two years as a program coordinator for the Vermont Humanities Council. Before moving to Vermont in 2015, he spent seven years managing recording operations for the oral history nonprofit StoryCorps, assisted Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, and contributed to the Brooklyn-based alt-weekly L Magazine.

Email: [email protected]

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