Those who tuned into Superintendent Brigid Nease’s Monday, July 27, question and answer session about reopening school may have been relieved to find out that administrators of the Harwood Union Unified School District (HUUSD) have been thinking hard about the details surrounding reopening schools in the fall. Others may have been distressed to find out that Nease and her team still have more questions than answers.
While the full recording of the two-hour forum, moderated by school board chair Caitlin Hollister and vice chair Torrey Smith, will be available on mrvtv.com, The Valley Reporter has compiled Nease’s answers about reopening schools here.
Nease explained that she drafted a 4/1 hybrid plan (in which students attend school remotely four days a week and in-person one day a week) after examining survey data from parents and staff. “This is the plan that we felt best met the needs of our district coming out of the gates,” she said, explaining that the model allowed for a speedy transition to fully remote learning if necessary.
When asked why the administration isn’t prioritizing in-person learning for younger students who are both least likely to succeed at distance learning and least likely to contract and spread the virus, Nease pointed to staffing issues. For instance, some parents will keep their children at home for remote learning regardless of the model the administration chooses, which puts extra pressure on teachers to work a double shift as both in-person and remote instructors. Moreover, Nease explained that teachers need time to practice teaching remotely. “The amount of time that teachers have to teach in person, teach remotely for those families that don’t want to come to in-person at all and to build a fully remote model is not being addressed,” said Nease.
HIRE MORE STAFF
One solution to this dilemma is to hire more staff. “We don’t have any money planned for it, but we can absolutely hire more staff,” said Nease, suggesting she was open to the possibility of designing a full-time remote learning option for those who want it. However, Nease expressed concern over the idea of creating a 100 percent remote option without hiring new teachers, knowing that the workload on teachers might be unbearable if they were responsible for simultaneously teaching in-person and remote classes.
While Nease supports a fully remote learning option, she also said she believes young children need to be in school, both for their education and social-emotional well-being. In order to open up the district to more in-person school days, Nease explained that the administration would need buy-in from the community and the state. The decision to open up for more school days will be largely community oriented, based on student, parent and teacher surveys. However, even though Nease agrees that children 10 years old and under are less of a concern in terms of virus transmission, she has not yet considered opening school to certain grades over others.
Even if the district creates a fully remote learning option, the administration will not allow students to jump from remote to in-person learning whenever they want. “We have to come up with parameters as to how and when and how often people change their mind. We build models on number of kids in a classroom, students in a room. We want flexibility, but we can’t be so flexible that people decide to go in-person or remote on any given week,” said Nease.
For special education students, Nease didn’t present a clear plan. She said school days will look different for each special education student depending on their school, their grade level and their needs.
One parent accused the administration of favoring teachers over students. To this, Nease replied that teachers have a lawful right to request a leave of absence during the pandemic and that the administration can’t answer certain questions about students until it knows how many teachers will stay. “This isn’t about caring more about staff. We really want them to stay healthy and come to work and give our kids the very best,” said Nease.
Busing is one topic that the administration considered in more detail. Right now the administration wants to implement congregate stops, meaning buses will pick up students at specific locations rather than door to door. “We hope to have five to six stops in every town within a 5-mile radius,” said Nease. HUUSD is seeking bus monitors to screen students on 10 to 12 bus routes two times a week at $50 per route or $1,000-$1,200 per week.
Busing will start at step three, the most lenient kind of busing, which involves a regular amount of students on a bus, all wearing masks. At step three, a bus monitor would check each student’s temperature and ask them three health questions before boarding the bus. At step two, the bus monitor would do the same, but ridership would be limited; students would sit by themselves, and have a row of empty seats between each rider. At step one, there would be no buses: school would be fully remote.
Nease acknowledged that this busing arrangement has flaws. Regarding the temperature checks, Nease said, “I’m very worried about students being outdoors while that’s all going on.”
As the conversation moved to child care, Nease acknowledged that one of the primary roles of the public school system is to provide child care for working parents. That said, the potential for the school system to act as a child care provider looks dismal this year. “Here we find ourselves now with the inability to provide that (child care),” said Nease.
As for after school child care, Nease said, “We’re still scratching our heads.” State guidelines about who can access a school building are strict, so schools can’t even accept parent volunteers for after school child care. In fact, this year, parents can’t enter the school building at all.
One of the other reasons schools can’t run after school programs is that the administration doesn’t want to mix students together. This is why shared recess time for elementary school students won’t exist this year and neither will shared lunch time in the cafeteria. Instead, students will play outside and eat together in their classrooms at individual desks, with no co-class intermingling whatsoever.
Some parents suggested more outside-of-the-box alternatives to school, like using nonschool spaces for learning or transitioning to a fully outdoor forest school. Nease made it clear that neither of these options was feasible. “We can’t be in multiple places around town and meet the physical safety guidelines,” said Nease about the nonschool locations proposal. As for forest school, Nease said students will be outside as much as possible, but “we won’t be able to meet the requirements of our public school by having school in the forest.”
Finally, parents wanted to know: What will happen if there is a positive case? Nease said the administration is trying to hire more nurses to prepare for a potential outbreak. However, she doesn’t think that one positive case will necessitate a schoolwide shut down. “It’s up to the Vermont Department of Health (VDH),” she said about the hypothetical one-case scenario. If a student tests positive, she explained, the district will immediately report the case to the VDH, which will complete contact tracing and give recommendations to the district regarding school closure.