The school board is taking over back-to-school planning. At a special board meeting on July 29, the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board met to discuss the administration’s newly released back-to-school plan, which involves four days of remote learning and one day of in-person learning for all students in the district. While some board members spoke in favor of this conservative and cautious 4-1 approach, the majority of board members spoke against the model.
Board member’s disdain for the 4-1 plan can be summarized in five points: The plan, which involves a majority of remote learning days, won’t work for young children, won’t work for working parents, will create learning inequities, is unnecessary for a district with such a low case count and actually increases exposure risk by having students come together in school for one day a week.
Regarding the effectiveness of remote learning for young kids, many board members spoke to their own challenges as parents with remote learning. “The remote learning, the way it was in the spring, doesn’t work. Not for my kids,” said Michael Frank, Waterbury. “Trying to live in a virtual world with an 8-year-old is darn near impossible,” said Alec Adams, Duxbury, after advocating that kindergarteners through fourth-graders should be in school with their peers. “Remote learning did not work out for my students. I have a kindergartener,” said Kelley Hackett, Waterbury.
Alex Thomsen, Waterbury, emphasized the science when making her case that young children should be in school. “I’m both a working mom and a scientist. I feel like we have not been using science consistently as a guidepost in our decision making. The science has been very clear that transmission rates with the littles is very low. To not put our K through 4 in a building more than one day a week is just not responsible of us.”
Parents who spoke up at the meeting also rebelled against remote learning for young children. Jill Rickard, a parent of a rising kindergartener in Waitsfield, asked, “How will remote learning for early childhood be anything more than nothing? There’s no way that children in kindergarten, in first grade and second grade, can pay attention to a screen for more than five minutes. Really, your 4 to 1 model is 1. There is no 4.”
Other board members emphasized the toll this highly remote-based model would have on working parents. “I know a nurse, an essential worker and parent, who doesn’t know how she’s going to manage to go back to work,” said Kristen Rogers, Moretown. Along the same vein, Rosemarie White, Warren, said, “While we are not required to provide child care for students, society had become such that we have two working parents, and they must rely upon school so they can work. We need to find a way to help those families so they can go back to work and pay their bills.”
Equity was another issue on board member’s minds when contemplating the administration’s 4-1 model. “When we look at the 4-1 model, it creates an enormous inequity between the haves and have nots,” said Theresa Membrino, Fayston. Some potential avenues for inequity include the hiring of supplemental tutors, the creation of homeschooling pods and the extra attention that some well-to-do families will provide to their own children and not others. “We need to get them back into the building together, there are going to be issues with equity,” said Christine Sullivan, Waitsfield.
In addition to equity, both board members and parents were concerned about the increased health risks involved with this specific model. Frank pointed out that when students are learning remotely four days a week, “a lot of kids are going to be mixing outside.” Students will not stay isolated in their bedrooms all day when they are learning remotely; they will play with other kids. Danny Ruggles, a parent of two elementary school students in Moretown, warned that less in-person days will result in more exposure when the students return for their one day in class a week. “It’s such a relief to hear the board pushing back on this plan,” he added.
Rickard, parent of the rising kindergartener, said that parents were already forming learning pods with no health regulations. “There is no 3 to 6 feet to talk about. There are no mask regulations to talk about. This is just going to lead to worse health outcomes than opening schools. Vermont has worked so hard following the guidelines. With our levels of COVID, if we can’t reopen, who can?”
Finally, a key pillar in the board’s rejection of the 4-1 model has to do with risk. Board members questioned why the HUUSD should take such a cautious approach when neighboring school districts with far more active coronavirus cases are opening for five days a week in-person learning. “I’m looking to our neighbors and wondering why our model is such an outlier. It doesn’t feel good to be an outlier in less education to our kids,” said Thomsen.
PRESERVE TEACHER HEALTH
Superintendent Brigid Nease defended the administration’s model as a way to preserve teacher health. “If we don’t have licensed high quality teachers in school to teach them (students), that will be untenable for families and not good for students,” said Nease. “The only way you can be student-focused is by stabilizing your workforce. These teachers are highly qualified. They have very specific licenses to teach. Losing any one of those teachers will affect us all greatly.”
Ultimately, the board decided it will take a more active stance in designing the reopening plan. In an informal vote that asked board members if they would rather take an active stance on reworking the model or leave it to the administration, five board members voted to take an active stance, three board members voted to let the administration stay in charge and the rest abstained. To summarize the board’s sentiments, Membrino, Fayston, said, “This is the most important thing any of us will do on a board. We are the approvers of the plan. We should be very involved.”