Schools receive OK to ramp up services
ADDISON COUNTY — Tuesday’s announcement by Secretary of Education Daniel French that Vermont schools would move on Saturday into Step 3 of their pandemic reopening will not necessarily mean immediate changes, but schools will have more options on the table that could soon be put in place.
The most immediate effect will be the resumption of interscholastic sports competition this weekend.
The most dramatic impact over the next few weeks could be a push to return kindergarten through 6th grade to full-time, in-person learning.
In his televised remarks, French emphasized the decision to do so remains with local school officials, although the Vermont Agency of Education has stressed the value of in-person education for younger students, as French did in his brief comments at Gov. Phil Scott’s semi-weekly press conference.
“The change in step level does change to what extent a district may offer in-person instruction or not. That decision remains a decision for the local school district,” French said.
“We know, however, that in-person instruction is very important for the healthy development and academic success of our students, particularly for our youngest students,” he added. “So we believe it is critical to work toward more in-person instruction while conditions are optimal to do so. Moving to Step 3 will give schools additional flexibility to provide more in-person instruction.”
Local districts, all of which are not operating on a model that blends in-person and remote learning, are not likely to rush their elementary students back to full-time.
For example, at Monday’s Addison Northwest School District school board meeting, Superintendent Sheila Soule said even if French were to move schools to Step 3 this week, ANWSD K-6 students would not be back to school full-time immediately. Staff and families would need time to prepare for the change, she said.
“The earliest we could bring students back is the first week of October,” Soule said.
Nor would older students in ANWSD return at the same time, she emphasized, citing the greater vulnerability to, and likelihood of COVID-19 transmission by, older students. At the same time, Soule left the door open for a full-time return at a later date if conditions permit.
“We won’t be considering a shift in K-12 right now,” Soule said. “We don’t want to do anything too quickly and then have to backtrack.”
Soule added even though there are no COVID cases now reported in her district, she and other school officials will monitor situations before any changes are made.
“We’ll be evaluating the conditions on the ground before making any decision to shift,” she said.
French outlined other potential shifts under Step 3, but said many things will remain the same.
“In terms of school operations, Step 3 should now be viewed in terms of relaxing the necessary mitigation strategies schools need to follow,” he said. “All the basic mitigation strategies, such as staying home while you’re sick, completing the daily health check, wearing a facial covering, social distancing, and washing your hands remain in play and must be followed.”
The move to Step 3 came, French said, because, “In spite of the few cases we have seen in schools, the conditions remain very positive. The cases we have seen in schools were the result of the virus essentially being brought to school. To date we have not seen the transmission of the virus in schools.”
He added statewide health data remains encouraging, as has compliance with health guidance among school officials, staff and students.
Another change families and students can expect is seeing gyms and cafeterias back in use, per French: “Under Step 3, schools may consider using these spaces again for their intended purposes, but with smaller student group sizes, staggering the use of the space, and ensuring cleaning and disinfection of the spaces between uses.”
At some point more students might mingle academically. Said French: “Under Step 3 schools have more flexibility in grouping students. Pod configurations remain an important consideration, but strict adherence to this consideration is not required under Step 3. This will provide greater flexibility for grouping students by academic subject, which is a very important consideration, particularly for high schools.”
Officials hope these changes will lift staff and student morale, which has undoubtedly felt the impact of limitations imposed by the pandemic.
Soule, for example, has praised ANWSD students and teachers for their hard work and adaptability during ANWSD board meetings.
On Monday she also offered a takeaway that might apply to other county and statewide districts.
“The mood is a little subdued. The kids are happy to be back. The teachers are happy to be back,” Soule said, but added: “The stress levels are high.”