Education

Whether virtual or in-person, the pandemic remade schooling. What should stay?

Students in Josh Martin’s kindergarten class enjoy a free play period at their outdoor learning space at the Orwell Village School on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Outdoor classrooms. Parent-teacher conferences accessible via Zoom. Free meals for all. 

Schools were turned upside down by the pandemic, and many are eager to put Covid-19 behind them and return to something resembling normal in the fall. But the unprecedented disruption that the virus wrought also forced schools to try new things — some of which parents and educators say should stick around.

With transmission of the virus dramatically reduced in the open air, many schools turned to outdoor education. And that’s largely been a success story, parents and teachers say.

In Orwell, residents gathered at the local elementary school one Saturday last summer armed with chainsaws and brush-clearing equipment to make space for classrooms in a rocky, forested area. And that’s where fourth-grade teacher Jenna Laslocky conducted class for all but the most frigid months.

There were limitations. Namely: math. It proved impossible, Laslocky said, to keep kids focused on their arithmetic when there were more fun things to pay attention to. And so, for those lessons, they trudged back inside. 

But the veteran educator said she was generally surprised that learning outside wasn’t more distracting, and that, in general, students — including those who had historically done less well — were more grounded and engaged.

“I think that children who had been alienated to a certain extent (or) who’ve struggled academically found terrain that very often they were very comfortable with,” she said.

Brooke Olsen-Farrell, superintendent of the Slate Valley Unified Union School District, to which Orwell belongs, said the district is considering using some of its Covid-relief funds to expand outdoor classroom space for the next school year. Other administrators have said the same.

Even as in-person learning expanded throughout the year, many schools stayed remote on Wednesdays to deep-clean their buildings and allow teachers to catch up. Virtual hump days were miserable for many working parents — particularly of younger children. 

But many other families reported their children, especially in the upper grades, liked having the day to themselves. A flexible Wednesday allowed them to get extra help, work, regroup, or explore extracurricular and career interests.

Shannette Streeter of Duxbury said the break actually worked really well for her 14-year-old daughter, who did fine with remote learning once a week.

“Having Wednesdays off and doing school from home — it totally broke things up a little bit and gave them a day midweek to kind of regroup. It wasn’t a bad year for her,” Streeter said.

Another virtual option that Streeter — echoing countless parents and teachers — wants to see remain available? The option to Zoom into parent-teacher conferences. 

“Your spouse who might be traveling could be given a link also and everybody could be there at the same time. They just made it more convenient,” she said.

The pandemic also made possible, overnight, a once-radical reform: free meals for all kids, no questions asked.

“The idea of having free breakfast and free lunch for students is, in my opinion, like No. 1. It’s just been great for kids,” said Stefanie Kingzett, a parent and teacher at Barre Town Elementary and Middle School.

All Vermont kids will have access to free lunch and breakfast again in the next school year, thanks to the federal government. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the national subsidized school meal program, has extended the pandemic-era reimbursement waivers that paid for universal meals through the upcoming academic year. 

For now, the federal government has said the meal waivers will expire in June 2022, although anti-hunger advocates — and many state lawmakers — hope the USDA or Congress will ultimately commit to funding universal meals indefinitely. But if that doesn’t happen, the extra year nevertheless gives state lawmakers more time to wrestle with the price tag of making free meals permanent when the extra federal help goes away. 
The Vermont Senate passed a bill this year, S.100, which sets the state on a path to universal meals, and the ball is now in the House’s court when lawmakers reconvene in January.

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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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