EAST MONTPELIER — The Washington Central School Board has approved a couple of out-of-the-box accommodations designed to make it easier for teachers with children to return to their classrooms, while creating a new leave option for those who would prefer not to.
Officials agreed they aren’t perfect solutions, and all are accompanied by yet-to-be-answered questions, but the board voted, 7-1, Thursday night to bless a four-point plan aimed at eliminating obstacles for some teachers willing to resume in-person instruction, while providing an extra off-ramp for others who either can’t or won’t.
Eight days after appointing three members to explore the issue, the board easily approved recommendations School Director Stephen Looke said represented the subcommittee’s thinking on the subject.
Two of the proposals are exclusively aimed at parents with school-aged children who live in districts that may adopt schedules that are different than the one now being contemplated for pre-K-12 students in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester.
“The intent … was to ... support the people who work in our district as much as we could by giving them increased flexibility to still be able to come to work,” Looke said, outlining the two proposals.
Though Looke said the subcommittee didn’t “delve into the details,” members generally agreed to offer teachers with school-aged children a safe, supervised space for them to learn remotely when dictated by the schedule in the districts where they live.
When schools reopen on Sept. 8, Washington Central plans to resume in-person instruction for pre-K-8 students five days a week. That is significantly more traditional classroom time than is currently being contemplated in many — if not most — other districts.
Looke said the subcommittee didn’t concern itself with the space, or spaces, that might be needed, or the cost of supervision. It’s primary objective he said was to extend an accommodation to teachers for whom childcare would pose a new challenge to returning to work.
That was also the thinking behind a second proposal, which, where space allowed, would provide teachers the options of enrolling their children in the school system where they work instead of the one where they live.
Barring a legislative change, Superintendent Bryan Olkowski said funding generated by those children would remain in their home districts and Washington Central would absorb the cost of educating them.
Olkowski stressed the offer would be constrained by class sizes and state guidelines and teachers employed at one of Washington Central’s five elementary schools might need to enroll their child in one of the others. It is also conceivable a lottery system might need to be deployed.
According to Olkowski’s “very rough estimates,” there are perhaps 40 students in play. Roughly 20, he said, belong to teachers at one of Washington Central’s five elementary schools and another 20 belong to teachers at U-32 Middle and High School.
Eager to make it easier for those teachers to return to the classroom, board members embraced what School Director Kari Bradley described as two “maximum flexibility” proposals, while acknowledging they are flying a bit blind.
It isn’t yet clear how many parents who live in the district will elect to keep their children home.
“We won’t really know until we open the doors and they (students) start showing up,” Bradley said.
It also isn’t clear how many eligible teachers will elect of two options offered in hopes of facilitating their return to the classroom.
“We’re really in a tough limbo right now,” School Director Dorothy Naylor said.
Olkowski agreed, citing the potential the state could ease social distancing guidelines for schools that were adopted in June and are at least partly responsible for some district’s decisions to limit in-person instruction to start the school year. If that happens, he said, those district’s plans may change, reducing the need for the accommodations the board approved Thursday night.
Bradley was somewhat more skeptical of the subcommittee’s suggestion the district offer a new “discretionary leave” option for teachers, noting the district’s staffing needs are a concern heading into an uncertain school year.
However, Bradley joined a majority of the board in authorizing Olkowski to both establish a deadline for discretionary unpaid leave requests, and determine how many to approve based on the district’s staffing needs.
Teachers granted discretionary leave wouldn’t be paid and would have to pick up the cost of their health insurance, which ranges from $10,000 to $25,000. However, they would be entitled to return to work next year.
The collectively bargained teachers contract already affords teachers a range of leave options, and others are available through federal law. Some are paid and are available for specific purpose, some require prior approval, and others are either unpaid or paid at a portion of a teacher’s regular salary.
Board members agreed it wouldn’t hurt to provide another leave option with the understanding Olkowski could decide whether it should be granted based on the needs of the district. They also agreed to funnel all leave requests to an independent “auditor” for review to ensure consistency with respect to eligibility decisions.
The subcommittee’s recommendations were approved as a package with School Director Jonas Eno-Van Fleet casting the lone dissent.
Eno-Van Fleet has expressed concern over a plan to return to in-person instruction for the vast majority of the district’s pre-K-8 students. He said the subcommittee’s proposal was a “creative” solution to the childcare problem some teachers might face, but feared it was not without risk.
“I appreciate and respect the clear desire to go back to school as much as possible … but Vermont is where it is because we have done a good job keeping human beings away from each other,” he said. “The idea of putting more people into (our) buildings just doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.”