DUXBURY — A plan to slowly reopen schools in the six-town Harwood Unified Union School District enjoys the unwavering and unanimous support of administrators. The School Board? Not so much.
During the board’s virtual meeting Wednesday night — its first since the plan was released last week — several members expressed concerns with what they, and some parents, argued is an overly conservative approach to restarting in-person instruction in a district that serves pre-K-12 students in Duxbury, Fayston, Moretown, Waitsfield, Warren and Waterbury.
Some board members used the words “stunned,” “shocked” and “surprised” when describing their initial reaction to a plan that — barring a change — would see students return to their respective schools, with half their classmates, once a week starting Sept. 8. Due to concerns associated with COVID-19, students would be taught remotely the other four days of the week until further notice.
While the board didn’t derail the plan that School Director Tim Jones complained was “put together in a vacuum,” several said they are prepared to assert control over its content in a decision that will formally be made next week. Even those wary of stripping control over the reopening plan from an administrative team led by Superintendent Brigid Nease, expressed some misgivings about what it currently says.
School Director Torrey Smith was one of them.
Smith said she appreciated the administrative team’s conservative approach to bringing students back to school amid the many uncertainties associated with COVID-19. However, she conceded the plan lacked “benchmarks” and clear metrics for determining when the limited in-person schedule could be expanded to meet the educational needs of students and accommodate working parents.
Several argued that schedule should be immediately expanded, with an eye toward moving back to in-person instruction five days a week — particularly for elementary school students.
Citing the low COVID-19 transmission rate in Vermont and what most described as the state’s stellar track record handling the pandemic, some said the plan now on the table begged two questions with respect to shifting to a more normal school schedule: If not now, when? And ff not here, where?
School Director Alexandra Thomsen, a “working mom and scientist” said she was troubled by a plan she feared didn’t reflect “what kids need” and was an “outlier” in comparison to the amount of in-person instruction surrounding districts say they intend to offer.
“It doesn’t feel good to me to be an outlier in terms of (providing) less education for our kids,” she said.
Thomsen said limiting in-person instruction to one day a week out of the gate didn’t make good sense from a public health or educational perspective.
“With one day (a week of traditional classroom time), you get all the exposure and no learning,” she said. “To me, that’s a ‘lose-lose.’”
School Director Christine Sullivan said she could live with the schedule proposed by administrators, but not for very long.
“I totally appreciate needing to take a cautious approach, I know this is scary for people, I know they need to get comfortable with the new protocols we’re going to have in place and get used to that new environment,” she said, noting that can’t be the new normal for public education absent a public health crisis that doesn’t currently exist.
“We don’t know when we’re going to have a vaccine, we don’t know when we’re going to have a cure, we don’t know how long we’re going to have to do this for, but we have to get kids back to school and I think it’s really important that we get them back into the building together because there’s so many equity issues that are going to pop up,” she said.
Sullivan and others said that has already begun, as a growing number of parents have started to pool resources and arranged “private pods” to collectively supervise remote instruction for their children.
“It creates an enormous inequity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in our district,” School Director Theresa Membrino agreed.
Membrino said she feared, the prospect of sending students to school one day a week could be a “tipping point” for parents who decide to enroll in a totally remote option, or home-school instead.
School Director John Clough said he shared that concern.
“Is one day a week worth it?” he said, suggesting that is the questions some parents might reasonably ask.
Although Clough said he was initially skeptical of the administrative proposal, he had warmed to it.
“Given all the unknowns it may be that a conservative approach might be wise in the long term,” he said.
Not according to Jones, who said the public trust had been shaken by a less-than-transparent process that appeared to be driven largely by administrative concerns that staffing the schools more than one day a week would be a challenge.
Jones said it was time to bring in the teachers for an unfiltered conversation before the board — not school administrators — decide how to proceed.
“We’re not delegating this authority,” he said. “At least I’m not.”
Board members agreed that is the first question they must answer during a special meeting next Wednesday and, while several said they hadn’t yet made up their minds, a majority of those who had said they believed the final decision should rest with the board. Membrino and Jones, both of Fayston, said that was their view as did both of Moretown’s board members — Lisa Mason and Kristen Rogers. They were joined by School Director Kelley Hackett of Waterbury, who, based on the board’s population-based voting system has an out-sized say in any decision. Waterbury’s other three representatives, including Chairwoman Caitlin Hollister, did not weigh in.
Only three board members — Clough, Smith, and Jeremy Tretiak – indicated a desire to defer to Nease and her team.
Some board members expressed concern about a just-released parent survey that they feared would yield difficult-to-interpret results.
Presented with the choice between sending her child to school one day a week, or taking advantage of a fully remote option, Mason said she reluctantly would opt for the latter skewing the results. Her strong preference, she said, would be for full-time in-person instruction.
For her part, Nease reiterated her concern that staffing the model described by Mason would be beyond challenging and easing into the school year was the most sustainable course of action absent the imposition of a statewide schedule.
According to Nease, roughly 150 faculty and staff who attended a recent staff meeting expressed overwhelming support for the plan advance by the administrative team and none supported an alternative built on the assumption students would receive in-person instruction twice a week — doubling the time they would need to be in the school buildings from two to four days a week.
Nease said the disparate schedules developed in other districts has put the “problem of childcare on steroids” for teachers who live in one district and teach in another.
The observation didn’t provoke an outpouring of sympathy from board members.
“Parents who aren’t teachers do this all the time,” Membrino said. “We figure out what we’re going to do with our kids.”
Regardless of the model, Sullivan said her strong preference would be that all instruction — in-person and remote — occur from the schools.
Nease sought undercut what she described as the perception the plan was “teacher-focused.” To a degree it is, but, she said, retaining highly qualified teachers was crucial to the district’s mission.
“The only way you can be wholly student-focused … is by stabilizing your workforce,” she said.
Nease said that means navigating the leave opportunities allowed for in the collective bargaining agreement and provided under federal law and confronting the likely reality recruiting substituted teachers will be problematic.
Among the provisions of the teachers’ contract is one Nease said could render Gov. Phil Scott’s decision to delay the start of the school year until Sept. 8 moot.
“We could be at a place where, technically speaking, staff just have another week of summer vacation,” she said, noting the contract prevents the district from requiring teachers to report to work any sooner than seven days before the first student day.
Absent a concession by the union, Nease said the extra week for training provided by Scott’s order, would simply amount to a one-week delay.
Board members, who said they would like to hear from students and hopefully teachers, heard from one on Wednesday.
Andrew Emrich, a kindergarten teacher at Thatcher Brook Elementary School, urged the board to support what he characterized as a safety first plan for re-opening schools.
“Teachers want to be in their classrooms, but we’re scared,” he said. “We’re scared for the safety of our students, the safety of our colleagues and the safety of our families. Can you tell us with 100 percent certainty that everyone that enters our building this school year will be able to walk out alive at the end? Yes, it’s important to get back in school, but is it worth the risk of having a student die, a family member die, or a staff member?”
Emrich said he would personally prefer shifting to completely virtual format that he believed could be done far more effectively with advanced planning this fall than it was with no notice in the spring, but believed the administrative plan was a workable alternative.
“We don’t need to rush and create a mistake that cannot be undone,” he said.
Board members also heard from some parents who thanked them for “pushing back” on a plan they argued would be less safe because children would spend four days a week in uncontrolled child care arrangements or mask-free in parent-financed pods before coming to school once a week.
“This plan makes it worse,” Moretown resident Danny Ruggles said.
Waitsfield resident Jill Rickard agreed, suggesting students should return to real classrooms as soon as possible.
“With our levels of COVID, if we can’t open schools who can?” she asked.
Until the board decides otherwise, Nease said, she will continue working on the plan that was rolled out last week. The board will meet next Wednesday to decide whether to play a more active role in the process. If it does, members agreed they should aim to finalize an alternative by Aug. 12.