By Hadley Laskowski and Lisa Scagliotti
Families can expect details next week, but based on parent and staff surveys and work to date, it’s not likely that students in the Harwood Union School District will return to school in person full-time when school opens in late August.
“You won’t see our model coming out five days a week in person,” said Superintendent Brigid Nease in an interview Thursday. “School as we know it is gone.”
Nease and school board leaders had a Zoom interview with The Valley Reporter and the Waterbury Roundabout on July 16. The superintendent acknowledged that the community is eager to know how school will go forward in the fall.
"I am very aware that maybe there's been some frustration in our community as to why we've maybe been a little more silent than others ... or maybe why we don't have our model out,” Nease said. “We have spent from the end of June until now listening, learning, trying to hear what other people are thinking about doing and waiting for the state guidance.”
Nease emphasized that administrators working on reopening plans have lists of questions that they need to work through. “Our question list for administrators is 152 questions long," she said. “All the concerns we hear coming from our parents and faculty about health and safety, we have those too. And honestly, some fears.”
On June 17, schools across the state received the first of five documents from the Vermont Agency of Education outlining health and safety protocols for reopening schools in the fall. Nease said she has been meeting multiple times a week with her administrative team, other school superintendents in the region and with state officials to make a plan for reopening.
The task is daunting at many levels. “There are still more questions than there are answers,” she warned.
Preparing to open schools while the COVID-19 pandemic continues is demanding everyone across public education retool operations with public health at the forefront yet also aiming to resume in-person instruction. Schools in Vermont closed in mid-March with students and teachers spending the final three months of last school year managing lessons online and communicating via email and video calls.
State officials including Governor Phil Scott have made in-person instruction the goal for the new academic year which for the Harwood district is scheduled to begin on August 25.
Nease indicated that while in-person learning is the goal, opening in-person full time from day one is not what district leaders envision.
Nease said she sees two main approaches being discussed for school-opening models around the state – one fast-track “win-the-race” idea which Harwood leaders are leaning away from.
“I think we think we win the marathon,” she said. “We are looking for sustainability. If we came in in a ‘win-the-race’ kind of idea which is all-in, all in-person, five days a week, we do not believe that is sustainable. We do not believe that is in the emotional best interests of staff and students. And we believe that even if we could pull that off, it wouldn’t last more than two weeks.”
The school district last week sent a survey to parents asking them their preferences for returning to school – whether they would like to see students in school full time, continue full-time remote learning or some hybrid combination.
Less than 50 percent of the parents responding said they wanted full-time in-person school, Nease said. A similar survey has been circulated with school teachers and staff with a deadline of early next week for their responses. As of Thursday, Nease said only about 20 percent of the staff responding favored full-time in-person school.
Nease said she hopes to have a draft model to share with the public sometime next week that will have more details on how the opening weeks of school will work.
So far, HUUSD schools are scheduled to open on Tuesday, August 25. Nease cautioned, however, that this could change and superintendents in the area are discussing possibly delaying the start until the following week.
And while the main goal is for students to return to the classroom to some degree, part of the district’s planning will involve a design to return to full at-home learning should the status of the pandemic change or the community experience an outbreak.
It’s not until the risk of contracting coronavirus is substantially minimized that schools will consider opening with in-person learning five days a week. When asked what constitutes a bad outbreak or a substantially low risk of infection, Nease said, “We don’t fully understand that yet.”
For the past few weeks, Nease and her team have been working primarily on facilities’ issues related to reopening. Steps are in progress to address health and safety modifications such as installing plexiglass in high-traffic locations like reception areas, ordering desks for classrooms that don’t have them, removing upholstered furniture, adding hand-sanitizing stations and even installing sinks in classrooms that don’t have them. School officials are ordering additional cleaning supplies and protective gear such as masks, she said.
How all of these improvements will ultimately be paid for is still unclear, Nease said. Districts are hoping that state education officials will be able to allocate federal funding for some of the work.
The list of other reopening logistics that administrators are considering is long. Every aspect of the school day needs to be imagined with the goal of preventing the spread of germs and being able to respond should someone become sick.
That will mean everyone – students and staff – wearing masks all day. Students will have assigned desks, facing the same direction and spaced according to guidelines. Students will be kept in set groups and not allowed to mingle with other groups. Lunch will be eaten in classrooms, not cafeterias.
Each school will need an isolation room for students that run a fever and need to wait apart from their class until a parent can pick them up.
The conversation around transportation, Nease said, is fraught with many wrinkles given state guidelines for every student to have their temperature checked before they enter school each day. Whether that happens on school buses is one question. That would mean hiring bus monitors to check students’ temperatures before they board the bus. Just hiring bus monitors may be a daunting task, Nease noted, given that such employees would all need to pass background checks. Boarding buses as students are checked will also affect traffic, she pointed out.
Noteworthy from the parent survey, Nease said, was that less than 40 percent of the parents responding said they wanted their children to ride school buses. She said she did not know how that compares with bus ridership before the pandemic.
Nease said she’s waiting to see in upcoming communications from the state whether fans might be allowed for classrooms before the weather cools off in the fall. Teachers early in the year are likely to holding classes outside when possible as long as they can ensure safety, Nease said.
Other issues to resolve include how to conduct physical education classes and how band and chorus groups continue given guidelines that restrict singing and wind instruments to prevent the spread of germs.
LIST OF ISSUES
The list of issues to work through continues. Nease said school officials understand that it will be a challenge for families to cope with an unreliable school schedule.
Not to mention one of the biggest concerns for parents and teachers alike: What if someone gets sick? “No matter what model we develop, people can still get sick,” said Nease.
While the superintendent doesn’t expect an entire school to shut down if someone tests positive, she doesn’t have a positive-case plan just yet. Instead, she has concerns. “What if we can’t find enough substitute teachers?” Nease asked. “We can’t just have the kids buddy up in one classroom.”
But Nease’s biggest concern isn’t an outbreak. Instead, she said she’s thinking about the emotional well-being of staff and students. “On a typical school day we have misbehavior, we have outbursts. We have all that stuff on a regular day without COVID. Our children are not robots, They’re not little soldiers. We would be ill-prepared if we didn’t think this was going to have an emotional toll on our kiddos,” said Nease.
In a memo to families, staff and the community late Thursday, Nease outlined the planning process to date and many of the issues to be addressed by district administrators along with teams in each school including teachers and staff.
She listed a series of dates for upcoming online meetings for families and staff to discuss school reopening and ask questions. Staff meetings are planned for July 23, 30 and August 6 from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Community forums are scheduled for July 27 and August 3, 10, 17 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. hosted by school board chair Caitlin Hollister and vice chair Torrey Smith. Details on how to join the meetings will be announced.
Nease said she will send a report with document links and specifics about reopening by Friday, July 24. The following week additional surveys will be sent to families and staff for feedback, she said, with a goal of making revisions and finalizing the plan by August 4.
Nease’s July 16 memo can be found here: https://huusd.org/blog/message-from-superintendent-nease-07-16-20.
Scagliotti is the editor of Waterbury Roundabout.