It’s not just Covid-19: Construction delays, staff shortages complicate school reopenings

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A student works on an assignment at Charlotte Central School. Photo courtesy of Charlotte Central School

Delayed construction, last-minute fixes and staff shortages have led to rocky starts for several Vermont schools this year. But school leaders say they’re taking all possible measures to ensure students can continue learning despite the setbacks. 

After more than a year and a half of toggling between in-person, remote and hybrid learning, students in Winooski and Charlotte had to wait a few days longer than expected to step back into the normal school routine. Both districts had been hoping to complete construction projects by Aug. 25, the day classes were set to resume, but had to make alternate plans. 

In Windham County, meanwhile, the Dover School is still set to open its doors Sept. 1, but the bus system responsible for transporting around 30 kindergarten through 6th grade students is not expected to kick in until a week later, according to Principal Matt Martyn. The school's regular bus driver and primary backup driver are both expected to miss the first week of school due to extenuating circumstances, and two other backup drivers recently retired, leaving students without another option out of luck. 

Winooski schools remained closed last week as the district completed renovations of its existing facilities and construction of a 63,153 square-foot addition — and gave teachers time to set up for the year. Superintendent Sean McMannon attributed the delay to a domino effect of labor shortages and scarcity of materials. He said the district had obtained a certificate of occupancy before opening day but wanted to give teachers adequate time to set up for students.

The Winooski schools began to reopen on Monday, though not for all 850 students. High schoolers came in for half days, with 9th- and 10th-graders attending in the morning, and 11th- and 12th-graders showing up in the afternoon. Seventh- and 8th- graders had the day off.

“It was just great to have kids back in the building and to see many of them going into brand new classrooms that teachers have worked so hard to set up so beautifully to receive new students,” McMannon said. “Everybody stayed in good spirits even though it started to torrential downpour as we started to welcome in new students.” 

Older students in Winooski will continue to attend school in a gym that has been retrofitted to resemble classrooms, according to McMannon. The entirety of the school's construction is scheduled to be done by August 2022. The work includes a new cafeteria and kitchen, performing arts center, offices and entryway. 

Charlotte Central School opened on schedule last Wednesday, but middle school students — 5th- through 8th-graders — weren’t in classrooms. Instead, they were relegated to larger spaces, such as the gym, cafeteria and the outdoors. Families were informed of the situation on Aug. 19, about a week before opening day, according to Bonnie Birdsall, a spokesperson for the Champlain Valley School District. 

The school received its certificate of occupancy from the town on Monday, and students were in classrooms on Tuesday, according to Birdsall. 

Covid-19-related challenges over the past year and a half prepared students and their families for this year’s delays, Birdsall said. 

“People were able to pivot,” she said. “They’re very used to it now.”

Some parents said the alternative schooling was a positive experience for their middle schoolers, according to Jen Roth, Charlotte Central School’s co-principal. 

“We actually had so many positive responses,” Roth said. 

Roth said she received more than a dozen emails from parents saying their students came home from school excited about the school-camp combo the teachers put on, where they took kids on hikes, played games and even had a smoothie station. 

“The pivot to remote for [Monday] didn’t feel great, but I couldn’t come up with any other way,” Roth said. The school welcomed around five middle school students who did not have another place they could go. 

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