As districts release reopening plans, some school officials are uneasy

District leaders began releasing plans last week for bringing students back this fall. But their proposals for reopening the state’s preK-12 schools diverge in significant ways, and some fear Vermont’s uncoordinated approach will require officials to go back to the drawing board.

“Under the guise of local control and the need to respond flexibly to the differences in each district, leaders were told by state officials to basically go figure it out,” Harwood Unified School District Superintendent Brigid Nease wrote in an open letter that has caught fire on social media. “Many superintendents and principals truly cannot sleep at night.”

Meanwhile, state officials appear to be floating the idea of pushing back the first day of school by a week.

Most school districts are poised to adopt hybrid schedules that blend some in-person instruction with remote learning, according to preliminary plans released by superintendents last week. But the amount of remote learning versus in-person instruction students will receive differs significantly from district to district. And while many plan to offer a fully remote option for every family that wants it, that’s not a guarantee all schools say they can make.

The Harwood Unified School District is taking one of the more conservative approaches to reopening in the state, and only planning to offer one day of in-person instruction per week to students, with four days of remote learning. Educators would be inside the school building twice a week, teaching half the student body at a time.

Nease said in an interview earlier this week that her plan may be an outlier for now, and she expects to receive significant pushback — particularly from parents who are eager to see their children return to the classroom. But she said she’d rather “start right to last long” and build up to more in-person learning as both staff and students acclimate to the new pandemic status quo.

“The looming elephant in the room,” she said, is whether school districts can actually staff the plans they’re putting out right now. And she pointed to local press reports about some schools already being inundated with faculty leave requests.

“This is all going to boil up between now and September 1. Teachers are scared. Teachers are fearful, whether we agree that they should be or not doesn’t matter. They’re fearful for their life. They don’t want to catch it. They don’t want to pass it along to their families,” she said.

Nease said she’d like to offer a fully remote option for families who ask for it. But she said that will depend on how many request it, and what she feels like she can reasonably ask her faculty to do.

“Who are the teachers that are providing a fully robust, brand new learning, remote program for all parents that want one? In my district that could be as high as 28% of my parents. That’s a lot of kids. How do you staff that? Where are we going to get the subs?” she said.

Nease released a letter over the weekend about her concerns, describing her reservations about the situation with candor she acknowledged is uncharacteristic of public school officials. Her letter has since gone viral, particularly among the state’s educators. On Twitter, the Vermont NEA, which represents most school employees, shared the letter.

“This is exactly why we have called for a statewide reopening commission. @GovPhilScott said it was politics; he is clearly wrong. Chaos at the local level isn’t safe for students, educators, and communities,” the union wrote on the social media site.

The Agency of Education released a set of basic health and safety protocols last month that schools must follow as they reopen. Though state officials have broadly set the course for reopening schools for the coming academic year, the details for how to bring students back to the classroom were mostly left up to each individual district.

Most school districts have said they intend to start the academic year on Aug. 31. But the Agency of Education has asked the NEA and the organizations representing the state’s superintendents, principals, and school boards if their members would support pushing the year’s start date to Sept. 8, according to the NEA and Jeff Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association. 

Francis said 34 of 50 superintendents who answered a one-question survey he sent out into the field on the matter supported postponing the start of the school year until after Labor Day. Six said they didn’t; 10 said they were unsure.

Reopening schools during the crisis is an “unprecedented, historic” predicament, Francis said, one which requires administrators to juggle a public health crisis with untold numbers of new logistical problems.

“All of the factors in combination contribute to an exponential challenge,” he said. “Most superintendents, even if they think they’ve got a pretty good handle on it, would be appreciative of time.”

Not every superintendent would necessarily agree with every piece of Nease’s letter, Francis said. But there wasn’t a single concern raised in it that he hadn’t heard echoed by another educator.

“The delineation of concerns, factors, and interests I thought was representative of what I’ve heard pieces of from various people,” he said. “There was not an aspect of that letter that caused me any doubt in terms of the sincerity.”

With schedules for in-person learning varying considerably between school districts, several superintendents have said they are likely to run into problems with teachers who will be asked to return to the classroom on days when their own children are at home learning remotely.

“That is an emerging area of concern,” said Emilie Knisley, the superintendent of the eight-town Orange East Supervisory Union, who said she was also watching what a nearby district in New Hampshire was planning to do before announcing her own reopening plan.

“Without a statewide approach to what we all are asked to do, there are going to be disparities between the districts. And I think that that’s the challenge,” she said.

Some districts are landing on a common model. School leaders in the Champlain Valley Superintendents Association, who oversee about 33,000 students across 16 school districts in Chittenden, Addison, Franklin, and Grand Isle counties, have settled on a shared, hybrid learning approach to what the fall will look like.

To keep students spaced 6 feet apart, CVSA schools will divide students into two groups, with each group attending school in person two days a week and learning remotely three days a week. This means faculty will be teaching in classrooms four days a week. Families that request it will be able to choose fully remote schooling.

On Wednesdays, most students will learn from home, and schools will use the day to provide individualized support to students, allow staff to plan, and deep-clean facilities.

Lynn Cota, the superintendent of the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union, said Champlain Valley superintendents wanted badly to offer more in-person teaching. But there just wasn’t enough space, she said, to meet social distancing guidelines with all students back on campus at the same time. Where there was space to spread out, she said, there weren’t enough teachers to staff smaller cohorts of students.

“That was a commonality where we really started out wanting to explore, ‘How can we get all of our kids back?’ And that was the place where we just said, there’s no way,” she said.

Elementary and preschool-aged children are unlikely to learn effectively online, and research suggests they may also be less likely to catch and pass the virus along to others. That’s led the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine to recommend schools prioritize younger grades and students with disabilities in their reopening plans.

Certain Vermont school districts are doing just that, and bringing younger children back for more in-person hours than the older grades. In the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, for example, students preK-2 will attend school in person from 8 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday. Older students will be fully remote. 

Also in Rutland County, the Slate Valley Unified School District has announced a plan that would bring all preK-8 students back on campus five days a week, while high school-aged students attend school in person on alternating days to accommodate social distancing. The district is not offering a fully remote option for families.

“This is our plan, you know, as of today, but it could change tomorrow. We’re really trying to be nimble and flexible and responsive to the needs of the community, the science and the data. But definitely support our students back in the building,” said superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell.

Olsen-Farrell said she hasn’t yet received much pushback from her faculty. But she said that could change, especially if teachers whose children don’t attend Slate Valley schools find themselves asked to return to the classroom while their own kids are at home.

“I think as other districts release their plans, and if their plans are not similar to ours, it could cause some issues,” she said.

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