At the last Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board meeting on November 18, Superintendent Brigid Nease gave a variety of coronavirus-related updates. Here are the updates, in short: First, an adult from Moretown Elementary School (MES) tested positive for coronavirus. Second, the district is slowly filling its vacant substitute teacher positions. Third, the HUUSD administration was saddled with contact tracing duties previously run by the state. Fourth, the HUUSD Food and Nutrition Program received a significant grant. Finally, the school board is on track to approve five paid vacation days for HUUSD staff.
“We have a positive adult at the school,” Nease told the board about MES. The adult tested positive for coronavirus on Wednesday, November 18, when the administration decided to keep MES in remote learning for the rest of the week, through Friday November 20. The school had been remote since Monday, November 16, due to lack of staffing.
Because many MES students work together in learning pods outside of school, the administration deemed it necessary to close the whole school for the case. “In the elementary school, we have large class sizes of kids in pods, so there's an even greater need to make sure no one falls through the cracks,” said Nease.
The school also had to close because it was understaffed due to teachers and staff quarantining or awaiting test results. This turned the conversation to the lack of substitute teachers in the school district.
NOT ENOUGH SUBS
“We've had a real problem getting and keeping substitutes and this week. Some of our regular subs called to say, we are not coming in until this pandemic settles down. Understandably, people are feeling this way,” said Nease.
However, the substitute teacher shortage problem should be mitigated soon, once the paperwork is processed. Nease informed the board that 14 more community members have stepped up and begun the application process, which starts with interviewing and ends with background checks. “Normally we would have a sub list of 89, but right now we’re at about 45,” Nease said.
Board member Lisa Mason, Moretown, asked what the administration could do to incentivize even more subs to apply, Nease said the district is already paying subs $140 a day, more than usual $85 a day.
NEW CONTACT TRACING FORMAT
The administration is also scrambling to adjust to a new contact tracing format. Previously, the Vermont Department of Health (VHD) handled all contact tracing responsibilities when a staff or student in any Vermont school district tested positive. Now, the VHD has handed over most of its contact tracing duties to the school districts themselves.
Before all school districts had to do was create a “line list” of possible close contacts based on student and staff schedules and seating charts.
“What we were just told was because of the amount of contact tracing going on statewide, they (the VDH) did not have the capacity,” said Nease. The new system is, when a student or staff member tests positive, the school district administration is responsible for creating a contact list and calling all contacts associated with a positive case. On the phone, school administrators are responsible for recommending quarantine and directing contacts to testing sites. Now, the only role of the VDH is to call those with positive test results and recommend quarantine.
On a happier note, Nease reported that the HUUSD Food and Nutrition Program received a $210,000 grant to improve the food service program. This grant came just in time for increased pandemic-related demands. The grant will help the district buy carts and racks for classroom delivery and offset the cost of PPE and sanitizing supplies. $70,000 of the $210,000 will cover meal packing supplies for classroom delivery and pick-up meals. The grant will also help the district afford new pieces of small equipment, like food processors, blenders, slicers, warmers, coolers and plexiglass, and afford upgrades to large equipment like walk in coolers, ovens, steamers and dishwashers.
Finally, at their next meeting board members will vote on a proposal to convert five work days to vacation days for HUUSD staff as a one-time bonus in recognition of their handling the COVID pandemic.
Harwood staff normally work an additional 10 in-service days outside of typical school days. However, this year, the Legislature passed a bill at the end of the session in June moving the required minimum student days from 175 to 170, giving staff 15 in-service days while students are not in the building. Nease suggested that all staff simply take those five days off as paid vacation time.
“It would be a way to gift everyone in the district those five days. It’s already budgeted for. It would not involve additional funds,” said Nease.
Board members were generally in favor of awarding HUUSD staff with five paid vacation days. They will vote on this topic at their next meeting on December 9.