MONTPELIER – As Gov. Phil Scott nudges school districts toward more in-person instruction, the Montpelier Roxbury School Board is pushing back.

Discussed by board members at their most recent meeting and tweaked as a result of that conversation, Chairman Jim Murphy sent a letter to Scott requesting “clarification” concerning his recent call for a return to “full in-person learning” before the end of the school year and preferably by the end of next month. Murphy indicated uncertainty about Scott’s suggestion has fueled “confusion” and “concern” in the pre-K-12 district that serves students in both the Capital City and rural Roxbury.

“… The Montpelier Roxbury Public School (MRPS) District has put in place a successful model for a safe return to almost full in-person learning during the COVID-19 outbreak,” Murphy wrote, embracing fellow board members’ suggestions he abandon broad language included in the draft they reviewed in favor of a district-specific argument.

“… MRPS has the vast majority of elementary school and middle school students attending in-person learning five days a week,” Murphy wrote. “Likewise, most high school students are attending in-person learning four days a week.

“Based on academic and space concerns, all four of the district’s schools look a little different and all models are working well,” he added. “We are providing quality education to our children and controlling the spread of COVID.”

The letter includes a call for “clarity” on a pivotal point: whether the MRPS model — one that has provided more in-person learning than most other districts in the state since schools reopened last September — would need to make an abrupt change in the final few weeks of the school year to meet Scott’s call for “full” in-person learning.

Murphy argued such a change would be impractical and, in some cases “impossible” given decisions that were made several months ago in the context of the district’s reopening plan. One example he cited involves a decision to require Montpelier High School students to take two intensive classes per quarter. That strategy allowed for “podding” the district’s oldest students and enable them to safely return to school for in-person learning. However, Murphy noted the system “cannot practically converted” to “full in-person learning” for the final few weeks of the school year.

“… We support the goal of robust in-person learning to the extent it’s possible,” he wrote. “However, we’re concerned that requiring districts with successful, mostly in-person learning models to change what’s working at the end of the school year would significantly burden our educators and administrators who have worked tirelessly during this pandemic.”

One of those administrators — Superintendent Libby Bonesteel — urged the board to write the letter on the district’s behalf last week and went on a mild tweetstorm the morning after a Friday press conference during which Scott renewed his push to get all Vermont students back in the classroom.

“… Like others, I’m trying to understand who the press conf(erence) yesterday was intended for,” Bonesteel wrote on Twitter. “Why just words w/ no support or understanding of what is actually going on & would need to happen? I truly don’t get it. Adding pressure to a stressed system w/ no understanding has never worked.”

Bonesteel suggested state officials could learn something by touring Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools when they are in session to see the obstacles that have been overcome to provide the in-person instruction being delivered and the challenges to changing that model at this juncture.

“… Then maybe, just maybe, the A(gency)O(f)E(ducation) could talk w/ individual districts directly to determine just what the situation actually is on the ground instead of giving false percentages to the governor determine(d) by a monthly survey that is nearly impossible to fill out accurately,” she wrote.

Included in the series of tweets was Bonesteel’s claim she is getting phone calls from “worried parents” who say they will refuse to send their children back to school this year.

“… What happens to them if I am forced to close the virtual option?” she asked.

Though most MRPS students have opted for in-person learning at the start of the school year, some chose the virtual academy that was created and staffed in response to some parents concerns about their children returning to school.

Given the success of the current system in a school year entering the home stretch, significant challenges associated with making changes and the Scott administration’s decision not to prioritize school employees for vaccination, the MRPS board took its stand.

The latter issue may be of fleeting concern.

A source in the Scott administration told NBC5 News Monday that the governor has decided to open up vaccinations to public school teachers, child care employees and public safety employees who are not already eligible beginning March 8.

This group will include teachers and child care workers, police and those 16 to 64 years old who have certain medical conditions. Because of the size of this group, it will be broken up into two groups, NBC5 reported. Scott is expected to formally announce the plan at his Tuesday press briefing.

david.delcore @timesargus.com

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