BARRE — A plan to reopen Barre schools next month was panned during its virtual roll-out Thursday night as impractical for working parents and unresponsive to those who aren’t yet ready to send their children back to the classroom, due to concerns associated with COVID-19.
At the outset of a meeting that was dogged by technical difficulties, Barre Town resident Dan Spaulding told the School Board it had a much bigger problem than the fact that a shift in online meeting platforms prevented dozens of people from logging on to the virtual session.
Many – if not most – called in instead and while administrators were still scrambling to diagnose a problem they were never able to resolve, Spaulding offered his unsolicited observation.
“This probably isn’t going to work for most families,” he said referring to a proposed schedule that contemplates the vast majority of the district’s pre-K-12 students will receive in-person instruction two days a week, while learning remotely for the remaining three days when school starts next month.
More than three hours later Spaulding’s off-the-cuff assessment sure sounded prophetic because, while Superintendent David Wells said the proposal he outlined was driven by “logistics,” board members were told it ignored the needs of many parents and the wants of others.
Barre’s new superintendent said while the scale of the district’s three schools, which are all large by Vermont standards, may help when it comes to calculating cost per pupil, they are a hindrance with respect to COVID-19.
It’s why Wells said a broad-based team that has been working on a reopening plan concluded returning to in-person instruction for all students five days a week would be problematic at centralized elementary schools in Barre and Barre Town, as well as Spaulding High School.
Wells said dealing with daily health checks would be a challenge if the schools were operating at full capacity and meeting social distancing requirements would likely be impossible.
In order to address that issue, the tentative plan, which is similar to those announced earlier in the day by several Chittenden County school districts, essentially assumes half the students at each school would take turns attending classes in person two days a week, while learning from home when they aren’t in school.
Barring an adjustment, the plan would require students with last names beginning with the letters A through K to attend an abbreviated school day on Mondays and Thursdays and those with last initials L through Z to do the same on Tuesdays and Fridays. Students would receive in-person instruction in each of their four courses once a week during school days that would run from 7:30 to 11:25 a.m. and end with them grabbing lunches and heading for home.
The remainder of their instruction would occur remotely and no students would report to school on Wednesdays when the building would undergo a weekly deep cleaning.
The proposed schedules for Barre City Elementary and Middle School and Barre Town Middle and Elementary School are similar, though not identical.
Students at each school would attend in-person classes two days a week — half on Mondays and Tuesdays and half on Thursdays and Fridays. The school day would start at 8:30 a.m. and run to 2 p.m. and instruction would occur online on Wednesdays when teachers would work remotely and the buildings would be cleaned.
The plan would require middle and elementary school students to ride the same buses instead of being picked up separately because, Wells said, it would take too much time to clean the buses between what have historically been staggered bus runs.
Wells acknowledged the plan isn’t perfect and he didn’t get any arguments from more than 60 people who attended the online meeting.
Many said it was untenable for working families and out of step with other central Vermont school districts — Montpelier-Roxbury and Washington Central included — are doing. Both districts are working on plans that would provide a full week’s worth of in-person instruction for K-8 students, while fleshing out a hybrid plan for high school students.
Spaulding, who works full-time as a behavior interventionist at Choice Academy, and his wife, Megan, who is the nurse at Union Elementary School in Montpelier, said that is the kind of consistency they need to continue working and the kind of education their two young children deserve.
Given what other districts — including the one she works in — are doing, Megan Spaulding said she was “shocked” to learn of the Barre proposal, which leaked before Wells presented it. She characterized her children’s experience with remote learning provided after in-person instruction ended due to pandemic earlier this year as “horrific” and not something she was eager to repeat three days a week.
“I’m very worried,” Megan Spaulding said, predicting the plan would short-change children and cripple working families.
“We’re looking at a situation where one of us is going to have to do a leave of absence,” she said. “I just really feel that we can do better.”
There was plenty of support for that position as others spoke about the importance of in-person instruction and encouraged the district to explore “out of the box” options to resolve the logistical issues that were driving the proposal.
If space is a constraint, Barre Town resident Jake Larrabee said the district could look at using the Barre Civic Center complex, or similar facilities to spread kids out and allow in-person instruction to occur more frequently than twice a week.
Wells said that could and would be looked at, but in what became a common refrain, he made “no promises.” The superintendent offered the same cautious caveat when asked about the prospect of creating a “virtual academy” that would serve students whose parents don’t want them to return in-person instruction at all. Though the details are still being worked out, the Montpelier-Roxbury district announced Thursday it is planning to offer that option.
School Director Sonya Spaulding noted the board was in a “no win” situation, with some parents actively advocating a return to full-time in-person instruction and others eager to enroll their children in an an entirely remote option.
The plan detailed by Wells didn’t satisfy either group and he was peppered with questions including one from a high school student concerned the proposed schedule could affect his ability to get into college.
Alexander Maurice is entering his junior year at Spaulding, is planning to take advance placement calculus and is concerned one in-person class in that course a week will add an unnecessary degree of difficulty based on his experience in the spring.
“Remote learning was not done well,” he said “There was not a lot of learning going on.”
Though Wells assured Maurice there would be increased rigor and consistency, as well as heightened expectations, with respect to remote learning, he didn’t have a good answer for the high school student’s other concern.
Maurice lives in Barre Town — “three miles uphill” from Spaulding. He has working parents, no license and no way to get home in time to take advantage of remote learning options that will be available to students in the afternoons on the days they are in school.
Spaulding High School has never offered transportation to students who live in Barre and Barre Town, but being dismissed at 11:25 a.m. creates an entirely new hurdle for those, like Maurice, who rely on parents to drop them off and pick them up.
Some said they were troubled the proposal had advanced this far without any serious attempt to determine whether it was workable for parents who are eager for their children to resume in-person instruction and those who would prefer a solely remote options. That, they said, was important information based on capacity concerns that prompted the decision to shift to a staggered schedule about which many expressed concerns.
“I don’t know how families are going to do this,” Barre Town resident Jackie Cassel said.
The board took no action on the plan, and Wells said he would review feedback with school administrators early next week, consider modifications and issue a potentially modified proposal later in the week. It was unclear whether that proposal would be significantly different than the one that was discussed Thursday.
Board members did approve postponing the first day of school for students to Aug. 31 in order to provide additional training time for faculty and staff, who will be briefed on safety protocols, and plans for offering in-class and remote instruction.