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This week, Seras, a Barre single mother who declined to provide her last name, was expecting her kids to return to school Tuesday.
Seras’ three children had been isolating at home since she tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this month. Tuesday would have been their first time in a classroom since before the holiday break.
Then frigid weather closed schools across the state.
With no in-person instruction, there’s “just kind of a lack of everything,” Seras said. “It sort of feels like the whole system is falling apart for them.”
Seras’ children are not the only students who have missed weeks of class. Since classrooms opened in the fall, Vermont’s students have lost thousands of school days, raising concerns about academics and students’ mental health.
After the holiday break, a surge of Covid-19 and plummeting temperatures forced schools across the state to close their doors. But while those lost days may have been the most widespread since the beginning of the school year, they were not the first.
This school year, classrooms have been battered by two waves of Covid-19 variants — Delta and Omicron — each more contagious than prior iterations. Widespread staffing shortages have contributed to closures, and an uptick in school threats has also kept students at home.
And even when schools are open, students are missing school.
For much of the school year, Vermont schools have been conducting “test-to-stay” — a testing regimen intended to keep students in class for as many days as possible.
Per CDC guidance, students who test positive for Covid-19 have been instructed to spend 10 days in isolation. In December, the CDC updated that duration to five days.
But students needed parents’ authorization before participating in test-to-stay, and students who were not enrolled in the program were told to quarantine at home for seven days. Unvaccinated siblings of positive cases were also instructed to quarantine.
That test-to-stay framework — which state officials no longer recommend, as of this week — resulted in untold thousands of absences.
“We’re all worried about this,” Chris Hennessy, the Barre Unified Union School District superintendent, said in an interview earlier this month. “Hundreds of kids missed the equivalent of thousands of days of school this year in our community, because of quarantining.”
Other districts have had striking absences too. In the Harwood Unified Union School District, during the first week of school in 2022, school officials logged a total of 1,354 lost learning days. Only about 20% of those absences were not Covid-related, said Brigid Nease, the superintendent.
“Have you ever felt like you are on an amusement park ride and it just doesn’t end, maybe the Round Up or a mega Roller Coaster?” Nease wrote in an email to parents Monday. “Well, the Covid journey has never felt more like that than now.”
On Tuesday, the state’s top education official announced plans to track school closures, in what appears to be the state’s first formal initiative to do so.
“In addition to helping the (Agency of Education) better support the field, this information will inform policy decisions by the Governor’s office and the Vermont Department of Health,” Secretary of Education Dan French said in a letter to local school officials.
But that initiative, as outlined by French, includes only plans to track closures during the spring of 2022, not the fall semester.
The agency collects data on absences, but that won’t be available until after the end of the school year.
“The AOE does not plan to conduct a survey to track instructional days,” Agency of Education spokesperson Ted Fisher said in an email.
The state agency hopes to begin collecting data later this month in areas where students missed the most aspects of schooling — academics, social-emotional learning, and “engagement” — to figure out how best to spend federal Covid-19 relief money.
“We have designed a data collection so we can begin to quantify and understand the patterns of student need at the local and regional levels,” Fisher said.
That’s a widespread concern among educators and officials.
“Schools are often the hubs of our communities,” Laurel Omland, the director of the Child, Adolescent and Family unit at the Department of Mental Health, said in an interview. In normal times, schools provide routine, socialization and safety for students, Omland said.
They also give kids access to counselors, nurses and adults who are concerned about their well-being, she said — key resources that are less valuable with repeated absences.
“Without school, some key safeguards are less available,” she said. “Especially to those children or youth who are more vulnerable, where some concerns might be picked up in the school setting.”
For parents, absences have raised concerns about their kids’ academic performance.
Eliza Leeper, whose 5-year-old daughter Josie missed about two and a half weeks of school around the holidays, said it was “just not feasible” to keep her up to date with classwork.
Leeper said she took off an extra six days of work to take care of Josie. Her kindergarten teacher sent home worksheets and a Chromebook for her, and the family has been trying to work through them.
But when the teacher sent an update on the materials being covered in class, Leeper said, she realized how behind they were.
“I read through it and I thought, ‘Oh, we have not worked on most of those things in our version of school,’” Leeper said. “We’ve got some catching up to do.”
In Barre, Seras’ children have all missed about three weeks of school so far in the 2021-22 year.
Her youngest son, who attends middle school in Montpelier, was able to complete some schoolwork online, but he will have to make up reading tests before the end of the year. And she is worried that her ninth-grade daughter might be held back because her grades have slipped.
“They do try their best,” Seras said. “But I sort of feel like they’re being handed a set of unachievable goals.”
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