As the September 8 school start date looms closer every day, Superintendent Brigid Nease and Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) principals have continued to diligently answer parent’s questions about reopening at their weekly Monday night Q&A forums.
At the latest Q&A session about reopening schools on August 17, Nease described the state’s potentially rapid transition to a fully in-person schooling. “We expect the governor to move to Step III relatively soon,” said Nease, who explained that a Step III learning model aims to bring students to school for five days of in-person learning.
However, while five days of in-person learning is the goal of Step III, it is not the rule. Learning models under Step III are “up to the district,” said Nease. “Hybrid is allowed.” Thus, even if Governor Phil Scott announces that Vermont schools can move to Step III after two weeks, the HUUSD will stick to a gradual ramp-up.
For instance, in a hypothetical scenario in which the governor accounts that schools can move to Step III after two weeks, HUUSD schools will pivot from just one day in school to two days in school. Specifically, a two-day in-person model would require half the students to come to school on Monday and Tuesday, all students to work remotely on Wednesday, and the other half of students to come to school on Thursday and Friday.
Once this new model is implemented, the administration will adopt criteria to move on to more in-person school days, said Nease. Perhaps, if the health status of staff and students is still stable after six to eight weeks, “we can go all in,” said Nease.
Deadlines were another topic of conversation at the Q&A. When asked about the parent deadline for determining whether or not they will homeschool their children, Nease said parents can apply for homeschooling at any time during the year.
Similarly, the deadline for requesting leave is fluid for teachers. “Throughout the year at any time if someone changes their mind they can exercise their rights to leave,” said Nease. Already, 22 leave requests have been submitted.
Even teachers who request leave due to lack of child care can return from leave when the district transitions to fully in-person learning, provided that the district hasn’t hired a new teacher. “Most leaves, in the world of COVID, could be exited and returned as long as you haven’t hired a replacement,” said Nease.
On Tuesday, August 18, Governor Phil Scott announced a $12 million dollar investment in child care services in Vermont, including covering the costs of day care for teachers, providing additional child care payments to current home day care providers on days when remote learning is taking place, easing of some licensing requirements and creating 73 day care/remote learning hubs throughout the state including six in Washington County.
One parent asked how student absences will be handled. Nease was adamant that attendance will be taken every day, even when students are working from home. However, there will be no penalty for absences when a student is sick. The only time a student can be penalized for an absence is if the student is absent for no reason.
Teacher absences will be handled differently than before, however. Nease explained that, if a teacher is sick and there’s no substitute teacher available, the district might have to cancel that teacher’s individual classroom, something that the district has never done before. “We would be calling parents relatively late in the morning and saying, fourth grade is closed today,” said Nease.
To avoid the risk of contamination as much as possible, all students will be screened before entering the building, be asked to use separate entrances and be required to wear masks throughout the day, even when doing after-school sports. If a student doesn’t comply with these rules, Nease said, “that student would need to receive remote instruction.”
Other parents were concerned about applied academics classes (art, music, PE, language) which are often taught by teachers shared by the entire school district. Different schools are taking different steps to accommodate these classes. At Thatcher Brook Primary School (TBPS), principal Denise Goodnow is thinking about creating a seven-week rotation in which students stay with one applied academics teacher for seven weeks. At Crossett Brook Middle School (CBMS), some yearlong classes, such as art and general music, will be condensed to one trimester. As for The Valley elementary schools, Waitsfield Elementary School principal Kaiya Korb explained that Valley schools are looking into a “residency model,” that will safely allow applied academics teachers to rotate from school to school.
For kids going into a new school, or even just getting a new teacher, the district will provide time for students and teachers to meet before school starts. According to Nease, during eight in-service days (in which teachers work but students don’t), two days will be set aside for teacher, student and family communication. This could happen outside and in-person on school grounds or virtually.
As for new busing information, finance manager Michelle Baker said parents should expect to sign up for busing soon. “We will be having community stops in the morning to allow for space for parking so we can conduct the temperature tests. In the afternoon, busing will be very similar to what it was when we dismiss school; we’re planning on our regular routes,” said Baker.
Also, on the topic of busing, Nease said, “In the morning we really need parents to stay with their child or student at the drop-off in case they don’t pass the screening.” The 5 o’clock buses from Harwood will be running, as well as buses to Central Vermont Career Center. There will be assigned seating for all buses. It will be up to the bus driver to make sure social distancing and assigned seating is being enforced.
A registration process will be sent out this week with more specific questions regarding families’ busing needs. For example, if a child only takes the bus in the afternoon, that will be information that will be asked in the registration process.