The Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) hosted a 90-minute public Zoom Q&A session with neas on August 23. The full Q&A session is available on HUUSD’s YouTube channel.
In an August 19 letter to the school community, Nease mentioned discord throughout Vermont and animosity towards schools about school opening procedures. Since Vermont’s state of emergency ended in June, decision-making regarding opening procedures was left to individual school districts and, with the Delta variant surging, many families and community members are upset by the plans to return to in-person learning five days a week, as recommended by the Vermont Agency of Education. Nease’s letter called for unity and, at the Q&A session, she clarified that there has been a lot of community support in the district and that she is grateful for the HUUSD community. Nease said the plan’s guiding goals are to keep everyone as safe as possible, physically and emotionally, to keep all schools open and to keep teachers in front of students. “Contact tracing is key to keeping schools open,” Nease said at the Q&A.
Nease’s letter lays out 21 steps of the district’s reopening plan and reiterates that no remote learning options will be available this year and that everyone in school buildings must be masked. Students will be masked on buses and there will be seating charts to assist with contact tracing. Outdoor learning will be used whenever possible, though masks will still be required outside, except for during outdoor sports practices and competitions (indoor sports will still require masks). When asked why masks were required during regular outdoor activities but not during sports play, Nease explained that sports regulations are guided by the Vermont Principal’s Association and that masks would still be required when not in play, such as during team meetings or when walking around. Unlike last year, facilities will be open for after-hours groups and clubs. Administrators emphasized that last year there were 20 pages of guidance from the Agency of Education and this year they’ll be using what they’ve learned over the past year-and-a-half as well as recommendations from the AOE. Because Vermont’s state of emergency has ended, the AOE can no longer dictate how districts address keeping students safe.
Families will be asked to self-screen their children for symptoms of COVID-19. Brookside Primary School nurse Allison Conyers advised that symptoms of the Delta variant present as runny nose, cough, headache and fatigue. She recommended that if a student wakes up with one of these symptoms, the child should stay at home and the school nurse should be contacted promptly. If students stay at home, they will receive assignments like they typically would on a sick day, but there will not be a remote-learning option.
While the school is requiring that staff be vaccinated or provide a weekly negative COVID test, they are not legally able to require students be vaccinated. Half of the district’s students are not currently eligible for COVID-19 vaccines (those under 12 are not yet eligible). Nease said the district does plan on keeping records of whether students have been vaccinated. “Stay tuned,” she said.
Vaccine clinics will be available at Crossett Brook Middle School for the Pfizer vaccine at 9 a.m. on Sunday, August 29, as well as September 19.
Director of facilities and operations Ray Daigle spoke of the ventilation improvements and precautions to mitigate air transfer, such as keeping windows open whenever possible, keeping two fans in a classroom and no ceiling fans and running ventilation as much as possible.
Free meals will be available for all students, regardless of economic status. There is no sign up required for in-school meals, though there is a simple sign-up option available on the district’s website for to-go meals for homeschoolers or children up to 18 who are not in school. Some students will eat in the cafeteria, while others will eat in classrooms. All students will be distanced and facing forward while eating.
There was concern expressed about the Open Hearth after-school program at Waitsfield Elementary School not starting at the beginning of the school year. It was recently announced that the program would not begin until October 4 at the earliest due to staffing issues. Nease said she will be discussing the issue with school administrators and noted that it is especially important that faculty have necessary child care. Waitsfield Elementary School principal Kaiya Korb said there are no openings for other local afterschool programs in the K-sixth-grade age range, though she said she’s “happy to try to problem solve with people. Staffing is a challenge all over,” she said.
NEED FOR SEL
Administrators also discussed the need for social-emotional learning (SEL) resources and said there is a task force assembled to address those needs. Teachers will be meeting with families early in the year to discuss SEL needs of their students. Nease said the district is nearly staffed with a social worker in every building. At Harwood, TA time will also be dedicated to SEL. There will be a new SEL coordinator at Crossett Brook Middle School. Brookside has also added new staff positions to address student needs and has trained teachers in activities to use to promote social-emotional learning.
“We’re hoping that conditions change quickly and we get to lessen these” restrictions, Nease said. “We’re still listening, learning and contemplating.”