MONTPELIER — Many school districts plan to offer in-person learning come fall, but they also fear the circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic will leave them without staff members needed to keep buildings open and safe.
“I’ve got concerns just thinking about our staff,” said David Younce, superintendent of Mill River Unified Union School District, which serves Clarendon, Wallingford, Tinmouth and Shrewsbury. “The medical data often points to the fact that little kids don’t spread COVID as readily as older students do, but I’ve got 200 plus employees who are going to be in school every day and I’m worried about those folks and how that will play out while much of the world is still working in a remote setting.”
Younce is the president of the Vermont Superintendents Association as well.
He said Mill River’s plan is to have all of its elementary school children in school five days per week. Middle school and high school students will be in school two days per week and learning remotely for three. This is because studies show young children don’t transmit COVID-19 at as high a rate as older children and adults, and there is more space in the elementary schools to keep students 6 feet apart from one another.
Younce said many districts are going this route, but it varies from place to place as bus routes and times need to be considered as do family dynamics. He feels the plan the district has in place is a good one, but it might have to change abruptly.
“I have not taken off the table the concept of possibly opening the school year in remote learning with students at home,” he said. “I’m still watching the national news, I’m watching what’s happening in other places.”
He said Vermont has been doing quite well with keeping COVID-19 under control, but it’s not immune to that changing.
“For example, this all relies on having maintenance and custodial staff who are ready and available to manage all of the significant sanitation stuff that has to go on,” he said. “If I start losing custodians, whether that’s to illness or whatever, the system could break down there. The same goes for teachers and support staff.”
He’s not the only superintendent with staffing concerns.
Libby Bonesteel, superintendent of the Montpelier Roxbury Public School District, said her schools are offering in-person learning and an online academy for students in kindergarten through eighth-grade classrooms. The high school schedule hasn’t been established yet, but will be a hybrid with students coming in some days and remote learning others.
She said the plan the district has for reopening is a good one, and given Vermont’s current COVID-19 numbers she agrees with Gov. Phil Scott that in-person learning needs to happen, but it won’t be without difficulty.
“This is a house of cards, absolutely,” she said. “We can create the absolute best plan that works for our faculty and our families, and if we can’t staff our schools, then that is going to be a very hard problem to overcome.”
There are about 20 school districts that harbor the children of faculty and staff at Montpelier Roxbury, said Bonesteel, which is an issue because there is no statewide school schedule they have to follow.
“Our staff is very quickly finding out that their own child’s school district has a remarkably different schedule than ours, and so they’re calling me saying how am I supposed to do this? And I don’t have an answer for them.”
Bonesteel said she will be in this predicament as well with her two children, one of whom is in elementary school, the other in middle school with the latter remote learning at home two days a week.
“We’re going to have to figure out child care, and for people who are single parents that’s going to be very difficult, people who don’t have a strong social network, that’s going to be incredibly difficult, and that’s just the reality,” she said.
Face coverings will be required for all students, faculty and staff in school buildings.
Jeanne Collins, superintendent of Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, covering the Brandon area, said it’s mandated by the state that students, faculty and teachers have facial coverings but some options exist for those who can’t or won’t wear them that would have to be weighed in on by a team and a doctor, “but if no facial covering works, depending on the situation, the child can be educated at home. If it’s a philosophical reason, that is not something we can accommodate in a school setting and keep the school safe.”
Brooke Olsen-Farrell, superintendent of Slate Valley Unified Union School District, covering Castleton, Fair Haven, Benson and Orwell, said along with Younce, Collins, Bonesteel, that the district will have face masks on-hand for students and others who need them but are expecting parents to procure their own. They are also encouraging people not to take the bus if they have another option.
Younce and Bonesteel said they had concerns about taking student temperatures with a forehead thermometer when they board the bus in the morning. If students have been outside for a while in low temperatures, it’s not clear how that would affect the reading.
Olsen-Farrell said she has some outstanding questions for the state with regards to items such as fans in classrooms — are they allowed, not recommended? The answer isn’t clear. She also wants greater clarity on the procedures around a student getting sick.
Younce said one thing that worries him is what happens if a case of COVID-19 does crop up in a school, or is even merely suspected. The Department of Health would handle the contact tracing, “But the psychology of a school that has the virus in it and what that means for the after effects greatly concerns me,” said Younce. “In that scenario, I would probably move quickly to go remote.”
He believes opening schools for in-person learning safely is possible, but it’s not the safest option, nor the one he would go for.
“If I were the king of the world, I would open school in a remote setting,” he said. “We would work our darnedest to make sure that the remote instruction that we delivered was of the highest caliber and be better organized and more connected than what we delivered in the emergency context in the spring, and I would want to watch what’s happening in the rest of the world and other school districts.”