Although the construction bond took up the majority of the Harwood Unified Union School Board’s in-person meeting time last week, a number of updates were shared with details on back-to-school enrollment, staffing, managing COVID-19 risks and cases, and smoothing out the bus schedule.

Much of that landed by way of a concise two-page written report from Superintendent Brigid Nease who is on an extended leave through Oct. 8.

Nease was not in attendance at the Sept. 15 meeting, nor did the board address her absence. But the group did sign off on starting the search for her replacement when she steps down when her contract expires at the end of June 2022.

The board in June chose the national recruitment consulting firm McPherson & Jacobson of Omaha, Nebraska, to assist with the search. On Wednesday the board signed off on a draft timeline for the search that begins with drafting a job description and proposed contract, moves to holding meetings with staff, students, community groups and the public in general; it also will include an online survey. All of that will unfold between now and mid-November.

The timeline called for advertising the position between Dec. 14 and Jan. 4 although some board members thought the tight timeframe over the holidays might not be adequate. Board Chair Torrey Smith said that part could be revised somewhat although the goal is to have candidates interview in January with a selection made by early February.

EnrollmentStudent numbers this fall have rebounded significantly from last year when the COVID-19 pandemic caused widespread upheaval in school attendance. The total district enrollment of 1,630 as of Sept. 9 represents a 44% increase from the five-year low of 1,586 in October 2020. That’s still trailing the 2019 pre-pandemic enrollment of 1,668 in all of the district’s schools. By comparison, 1,721 students were enrolled in October 2017.

This fall’s gains are seen in five of the district’s seven schools with the largest increase – 19 students – at Harwood Union High School; Fayston has 15 more students than last year (although it’s missing fifth-graders entirely); Moretown has a dozen additional students. Waitsfield and Brookside saw small decreases, losing five and four students apiece; Warren and Crossett Brook had smaller increases of two and five students each.

Official tallies for this school year will be taken in October, the customary school census time across the state.

COVID impacts attendanceThe school district’s fourth COVID-19 case was announced in a message sent out to families and in a post on the district’s website on Sept. 15. Brookside Primary School Nurse Allison Conyers, the district’s COVID-19 response coordinator, said the case involved an individual at Waitsfield Elementary School. The notice did not specify any particular grade or whether it was a student or staff member who tested positive.

The announcement follows other single cases that have emerged at Crossett Brook Middle School, Brookside Primary and Warren Elementary, none of which so far have resulted in additional cases emerging.

The school board did not discuss COVID-19 this week but Nease’s report details the ripple effects throughout the schools due to contact tracing and testing after staff and students have been exposed to the virus.

The report provides weekly breakdowns on attendance noting reasons for absences through Sept. 10. At that point, only three COVID-19 cases had emerged and 54 had been quarantined. The report did not say how many staff were affected.

Overall, student absences were just under 5% for that time with the highest levels at Crossett Brook Middle School, 7.2%, and Harwood High School at 6%. Some of the highest absences by class were where COVID-19 cases had popped up such as 17% of Crossett Brook fifth graders.

COVID-related absences affect many individuals beyond those who have tested positive. Each week so far has logged dozens of absences for students home awaiting test results, having symptoms or in quarantine after being a close contact.

Clearing the airNease also shared a summary from school district Facilities Manager Ray Daigle listing steps taken so far to address air quality in school buildings so as to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread. Daigle notes how all HVAC systems have been inspected and serviced to be sure they are working properly and have had upgrades on filters. Ventilation has been increased where possible and rooms without adequate ventilation have had air purifiers added with more ordered through a program with the state, he wrote.

One measure that’s key involves air changes per hour in classrooms, Daigle explained. Some classrooms had adjustments made to meet the current standards. He detailed work at the Waitsfield school where ventilation units were replaced for better operation in cold temperatures to maintain airflow into the building from the outside. A similar upgrade is needed at Warren Elementary, Daigle said, which might be done using federal funding.

There still is work needed to improve ventilation in some areas, particularly music classrooms which require three air-change cycles per hour, Daigle said. Waitsfield fell short but the new equipment is expected to fix that. The Brookside music room was measured with 2.4 air changes per hour so it still needs improvement. “There is not a quick fix for this,” Daigle said. “The music classes have been moved to another location with the recommended [air changes per hour].”

The music room in Warren Elementary similarly needs attention although a shortage of contractors for the work is affecting that getting done, Daigle said.

StaffingNease’s report listed 30 current staff vacancies throughout the district with the most openings at Harwood Union high school: two special educators, four student support staff, a building maintenance supervisor, a front office receptionist, an administrative assistant to the principals, a technology coordinator, a social worker, and two food service staff. Elsewhere in the district, Warren and Waitsfield schools have positions open for a world language teacher, a special educator, and three student support staff. Instructional assistants are also needed at Brookside Primary and Moretown Elementary.

In order to conduct more extensive COVID-19 surveillance testing this fall for both staff and students, the district is in the process of hiring seven testing assistants who will work with school nurses on that weekly effort.

Busing adjustmentsAs most families with kids in school know, the bus routes and times have taken some getting used to this year. Not only have elementary students been separated onto their own bus runs from middle and high schoolers, but the school day schedule has shifted an hour later for the older students. Along the way, bus travel times have been shortened, Nease wrote in her report, and waits both to get off buses in the morning and onto them in the afternoon were reduced. There’s even “express” service between Crossett Brook Middle School and Harwood Union High School.

Not surprisingly, it was a rocky start. “Confusion about routes led to significant delays in the first weeks of school, with families signing their students up to get on the wrong bus and/or students getting on the wrong bus,” Nease wrote.

And once the elementary buses were delayed, the middle and high school buses were even later. “CBMS and HUMHS have experienced the brunt of the impact with delays as we’ve worked out these details,” she said.

Now most of the kinks have been ironed out. One important note: parents should take up any remaining glitches with individual school offices, not the Bus Barn and First Student, Nease said.

Looking ahead to next school year, lessons learned in the past few weeks could help make for a smoother start. The superintendent suggested opening online registration earlier so parents can log updated information to help set the routes; revising the formatting of bus route listings to be more user-friendly; better communicating the process for requesting route changes and highlighting updates so families can easily spot them.

The superintendent’s report is contained in the information packet for the Sept. 15 school board meeting on the website under the Board tab.

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