An open letter from Harwood Unified Union School District Superintendent Brigid Nease:
Dear HUUSD staff, board and community,
Tonight, I write to share information and my best thinking about opening up our schools to provide child care to essential personnel during this time of state and national emergency. I have studied thoroughly the state and national published guidance, state and national medical reports and guidance, and much information from our entire staff and administration. Last Thursday, I submitted forms to staff and parents asking them to get back to me by 6:00 Sunday evening. The responses were many. In addition to the forms, I have read over 300 usually lengthy very passionate, empathetic and personal email messages containing specific information about families and their needs. Here is what I learned:
Our teaching staff, themselves, are essential personnel in every way. Moving to online/distance learning, managing ongoing, strong communication with families and students and meeting remotely with colleagues constitutes more than a full-time job. They are also homeschooling their own children, caring for other family members and providing child care for friends and neighbors. They do not have the capacity to take on public child care as well.
All staff are fearful -- just like the rest of us -- of contracting this virus, spreading it unknowingly and managing the care of themselves and family members who will become infected. Most staff fall into one of the exempt categories prohibiting them from coming to work.
- Educators or staff with compromised immune conditions or other health conditions that would put them at unreasonable risk.
- Educators or staff who reside with someone with a compromised immune condition.
- Educators or staff suffering from anxiety and related mental health conditions.
- Expectant educators or staff.
- Educators or staff with infants.
- Educators or staff over 60.
The vast majority of staff believe strongly in “flattening the curve.” They are already isolating at home, practicing social distancing and they or family members are in self quarantine. Since Friday, the guidance from the AOE changed from staff shall report to work, to who can volunteer. Most staff responded to me within the last three days. Only five staff are able to volunteer at this time in limited ways.
This staff position is based on their own personal/family circumstances and/or strong beliefs that closed means closed. They believe public schools should not reopen to provide child care because it will interfere with flattening the curve, is not safe for them, their own children, or our students based on VDH updated guidance. It would seriously interfere with their primary job of providing a high quality remote education for every student, the buildings will be absent the “systems” we have in place for managing students in rooms for eight-plus hours/day, and they are not trained child care providers.
Staff shared serious concerns about not having protective gear available at school during this stage of the virus, the diminishing supply of cleaning products, the impossible situation of implementing social distancing protocols (especially keeping students 6 feet apart) exposing their own children by being forced to bring them to work in the building, and creating a congregate situation in schools that is likely to grow over the next month as the situation worsens.
The survey conducted by Building Bright Futures statewide indicates one family needing care in our district. The survey I put out last Thursday has approximately 20 families needing some type of child care assistance. Parents indicate reluctance to bring their students into a group setting, requesting care in their homes if possible.
Parents indicate they presently have child care but worry that if the situation goes on for weeks or months they may need care in the future.
Today, we received updated guidance from the VDH on operating child care for students in our schools that requires:
Children must be kept in small groups, not more than 10 individuals in a classroom, including teachers. Classrooms and outside play areas divided by gates or partial walls are considered one room and shall only serve one group of children. There must be absolutely no large group activities. Social distancing practices should be in place which means different groups of children should not have contact with one another.
-Child care facilities and schools can maintain operations with an occupancy greater than 50 children as long as children are separated into classrooms as above and do not share common places (e.g. outside play area, eating areas, indoor gross motor rooms, etcetera) at the same time.
-Child care services must follow the following handwashing practices. Specifically, staff must engage in frequent handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially:
- Upon arrival at school or child care program.
- After going to the bathroom.
- Before eating.
- After blowing one’s nose.
- When visibly dirty.
Teachers should help young children do the same. If soap and water are not readily available, closely supervise (to avoid ingestion) use of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
- Programs and schools should engage in frequent thorough cleaning each day. Child care programs shall follow regulations regarding cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting. Schools shall follow routine cleaning and disinfecting practices. Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces such as:
- All surfaces especially where children eat.
- Frequently used equipment including electronic devices.
- Door handles and handrails.
- Items children place in their mouths.
-There should be no outside visitors and volunteers with the exception of employees or contracted service providers for the purpose of special education or required support services, as authorized by the school or district.
- Post signs. As part of routine measures for the respiratory season, existing signs should be visible that remind staff, visitors and children to perform hand hygiene (sneeze/cough into their elbow, put used tissues in a waste receptacle and to wash hands immediately after using tissues). Recommend everyone to avoid close greetings like hugs or handshakes.
Latest guidance for superintendents:
During the closure period, educators and staff are required to report to work. It is up to the superintendent’s judgment whether the reporting location for individual employees will be a physical report to school/other location or a remote work assignment such as home.
It is recognized that schools have broad responsibilities under this order to provide child care and continuity of education and superintendents should work with educators and staff to implement individual work assignments in a way that balances workload in a fair manner.
Solely for the provision of child care services for essential persons under the governor’s order, superintendents shall first ask for volunteers from educators and staff to fulfill staffing requirements.
If superintendents are unable to find sufficient volunteers from educators and staff, they are empowered to find supplemental community volunteers to fulfill the objectives of the governor’s order. Superintendents shall follow their established background check policies for community volunteers. In order to comply with VDH guidance, anyone with serious physical or mental health issues shall not be required to be in or physically report to school buildings or other congregate settings.
Under the governor’s directive, schools will remain operational for administrators, teachers and staff to sustain essential services and to plan and implement continuity of education. At this stage of closure, nearly all HUUSD employees are working remotely. Each day more of them fall into the exempt categories. Central office is at bare bones capacity. Our food service, custodial, and at least one admin assistant per building are on site. It is essential that we limit contact with them to keep them healthy and able to continue.
My findings, based on my best sound professional judgment, as of this date, March 22, 2020, is that at the present time and for all the reasons stated above, the data clearly demonstrates that HUUSD does not have the capacity to provide child care for essential personnel. Our schools will not reopen at this time. I will continue to monitor the situation and revisit this decision as new information becomes available.
That said, I believe we have a community problem that will likely grow over the next several months as we fight this pandemic together. It requires a community solution. I do not have the resources during this closure to screen and run criminal checks on volunteers. My professional judgement and ethics will not allow me to open schools, put volunteers in classrooms that I do not know, without trained personnel present, to care for students. I mean seriously, what about a fire drill or unsafe intruder, lockdowns, medical emergencies, and the list goes on. Our HUUSD personnel will not be present to implement our safety and crisis plans.
We need to do everything we can to support essential personnel in our community to obtain reliable child care. I do not have a solution. I do believe it should be one family at a time.
Parents have the say as to who will be with their children and where. We should keep numbers of children in the smallest possible groups. The superintendent of schools cannot and should not have the authority in this pandemic to suggest or encourage staff and students to volunteer.
Each staff member and student has the right to determine that for themselves. We have many HUHS students, as well as college students, indicating their desire to provide child care. It seems that should be arranged by them on FB, FPF and any other reasonable means.
A superintendent will not be subject to routine licensing violations based on actions the superintendent takes in complying with the governor’s emergency orders, so long as those actions are informed by sound professional judgment. I sincerely believe that I am exercising sound professional judgment with this decision.
My admin team and I will continue working with our regional partners, other agencies and the state to determine sustainable, safe and reliable district-based options that meet the child care needs of health care workers and other Vermonters essential to the response. I will continue to listen, learn and do everything I can to make the safest decisions possible for my staff, students and families throughout this pandemic.