EAST MONTPELIER — A newly formed subcommittee has an assignment and a deadline, a veteran school nurse has a new role, some teachers have questions and concerns and Superintendent Bryan Olkowski needs answers.
Those were among the many takeaways of Wednesday night’s virtual meeting of the Washington Central School Board — a special session that was conducted in three separate near-hour-long segments less than five weeks before the district’s six schools are scheduled to reopen.
Precisely what that will look like in a post-COVID-19 Vermont remains a bit of a mystery though board members were briefly informed about the latest thinking with respect to a summer-long planning process that started before Olkowski settled in July 1 as superintendent.
Olkowski told board members that work is ongoing thanks to five separate task forces that include a diverse collection of 72 district employees.
During a meeting that opened with calls for “transparency” and “hazard pay” for teachers and staff members who are forced to return to the classroom, Olkowski supplied no concrete detail because, he said, it doesn’t yet exist.
The “plan,” Olkowski explained, is to “prioritize” in-person instruction for the district’s K-8 students, while exploring a “hybrid option” that could include a mix of distance learning and live instruction for 9-12 students at U-32 Middle and High School.
However, Olkowski said those preparations had reached an important pivot point.
“You can come up with all of the plans in the world, but if you don’t have the workforce that’s available to implement any of the plans, you’ve got a problem,” he said. “That’s the dilemma that we’re in.”
That’s why Olkowski recently sought to poll faculty and staff in a survey some said Wednesday they didn’t fill out and worried could produce misleading results because it included neither clarity nor context.
It’s also why Olkowski, who has recently fielded leave requests for the soon-to-start school year urged the board to consult with the district’s lawyer to discuss its contractual and statutory obligations to grant them.
The private meeting with attorney Pietro Lynn occurred in the middle of two very different conversations. The meeting opened with several teachers raising concerns about the planning process and the prospect of returning to the classroom, and resumed following the scheduled executive session with board members discussing the need to swiftly determine whether and under what conditions, it might offer an enhanced “COVID leave” to employees.
Toward that end, the board tasked a three-member subcommittee with exploring its options, conferring with union leaders and reporting its findings at a board meeting that was tentatively scheduled for next Thursday.
Though Olkowski floated the possibility, he might yet recommend students return to school a few days later than the Aug. 25 start date, he emphasized that time is of the essence.
“If we do have a large number of folks who say they’re not coming back, we need to start posting positions,” he said, noting that process takes time, and it is rapidly running out.
Olkowski wasn’t the only one feeling a sense of urgency.
More than two dozen faculty and staff members attended the virtual meeting and the handful that spoke expressed concern about lingering uncertainty involving a fast-approaching school year.
Lisa Hanna who teaches fifth- and sixth-graders at Doty Memorial School in Worcester, was one of them.
“The clock is ticking and many of us will soon be standing in front of some number of children and being responsible for keeping them safe and there’s a lot we don’t know right now,” she said.
Though the planning process has involved educators at every level of the district, Hanna said their work hasn’t been well-communicated, leaving teachers wondering what to expect.
“I feel a little bit in the dark … and I’m guessing a lot of my colleagues feel the same way.”
Danielle Laquerre, a parent and para-educator at East Montpelier Elementary School, voiced the same concern.
“We don’t have … any information as to what is really going on, or what is expected and school starts in a very short period of time,” she said.
Several who spoke expressed concern about the recent survey, that some said lacked critical context and may have discouraged candor because the responses were personally identifiable.
Among other things, the survey sought to get some sense of how many teachers and support staff were willing to return to in-person instruction.
Ben Weiss, who teaches first- and second-graders at Rumney Memorial School in Middlesex, said he wasn’t comfortable completing a survey that was “interpreted in wildly different ways” by those who filled it out.
Weiss said it wasn’t at all clear whether teachers were being offered an option or being asked to declare their intention with respect to the coming school year.
“More context would have been helpful,” he said.
Alyson Mahony, who splits her time as a librarian at Rumney and Doty, said her completed survey probably wasn’t “accurate.”
“I chose the one that I wished for,” she said, noting even that choice was made without important information.
“How can I best make a decision if I want to apply for a leave of absence if I don’t know what my job description is going to be?” she asked, noting it is unclear whether splitting time between schools will be allowed.
Daniel Diddlemeyer, a sixth-grade teacher at Rumney, said the board had recently approved significant investments in building and equipment upgrades designed to facilitate the safe return to in-person instruction without determining whether the faculty and staff were willing.
“It feels a lot like there is a non-consent situation with being in the classrooms at this point,” he said.
Diddlemeyer questioned everything from whether there would be “a special bucket of pay” for staff members forced to return to school to the process used to select those who served on the reopening task forces. He questioned the “generals die in their beds” optics of a board meeting online expecting teachers to return to their classrooms and openly wondered about worst-case scenarios.
“What support will be available to teachers and staff when and if a student or staff member dies because that’s going to be a reality that we’ll have to have to face meeting in-person, and that’s not necessarily something I want to handle with middle school-aged sixth-graders,” he said.
Deanna Murray, who teaches preschool at Rumney, said she shared concerns about the survey and the plan to return to in-person instruction.
“Are we going to be getting hazard pay for returning back to school in this situation?” she asked.
Some board members seemed confused by the open-ended start to a meeting they thought was called to focus on legal issues associated with pending leave requests, but entertained teachers questions and concerns while assuring them their input would be considered.
“What I’m hearing is essentially anxiety being verbalized in many different ways,” Chairman Scott Thompson said before the board moved into executive session.
When it emerged members agreed to form a subcommittee to explore other leave options and report back next week. School Directors Stephen Looke, Chris McVeigh and Dorothy Naylor were appointed the committee, which plans to meet tonight.
In addition to appointing the subcommittee, the board approved the hiring of veteran school nurse Elizabeth Wirth to serve as the district’s COVID-19 coordinator. Wirth who worked for nearly 20 years as the nurse at U-32, was most recently filling one of two half-time nursing positions at East Montpelier Elementary School.
The board recently agreed to create the new position and hire an additional full-time nurse as part of the plan to reopen schools. Wirth’s hiring creates a half-time vacancy at East Montpelier, though the Olkowski said filling it may be as simple as increasing the other half-time nurse to a full-time position.