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Educators hope for return to ‘normal’

  • Kerry Browne, known by his students at Rivendell Academy as Doc, right, talks with Andrew Kawalec, 17, left, during a global studies class in Orford, N.H., Thursday, March 18, 2021. Browne received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine last weekend. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kerry Browne, left, assists Kirsten Surprenant, right, in teaching her global studies through cycling class at Rivendell Academy in Orford, N.H., Thursday, March 18, 2021. Both teachers received the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine over the weekend. “It seems like hope is coming and spring is coming,” said Surprenant, who was able to move her class of 14 students out of a noisy cafeteria space and into a classroom while still maintaining social distancing for the first time this week. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/19/2021 9:25:03 PM
Modified: 3/19/2021 9:25:00 PM

ORFORD — Kerry (Doc) Browne and his wife, Rachel Sanders, both of whom teach at Rivendell Academy, drove up to Jericho, Vt., last Friday to get their COVID-19 vaccinations.

As momentous as that felt, Browne has been staying with the regimen he has gotten to know over the past year: masks, physical distance, hand-washing, and so on.

“I’m trying not to change any of my behaviors,” Browne said in a phone interview this week. He received the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which will confer its full benefits after two weeks. Until then, it’s unclear whether he can still contract or spread the novel coronavirus, so caution is the rule.

But beyond that might be a step back toward life as it was. Once the vaccine takes full effect, he’ll be able to stand close enough to students to look over their shoulders and help them with their work.

“It’s not easy to help someone from 6 feet away,” he said.

Teachers in Vermont and New Hampshire are steadily being vaccinated. By April break, it’s likely that everyone who works in a school who wanted a vaccination will have been able to get one. At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance Friday that 3 feet is sufficient distance between students in the classroom.

These developments have provided teachers and administrators with a sense of hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind them and that as more people are vaccinated, schools can resume their place at the center of their communities.

“It would be nice to have graduation in some form,” Browne said.

Thus far, teachers have been able to get vaccinated. Some, like Browne, have had to drive across the state to get to a clinic. Others have been able to get vaccinated at a pharmacy or at a clinic closer by. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center is hosting vaccination clinics on Saturday and next weekend, for example.

Rather than wait, many teachers have hunted for the soonest shot available.

Lance Mills, a teacher at River Bend Career and Technical Center in Bradford, Vt., had scheduled a vaccination for April 11, right in Bradford. But he went onto the state’s vaccination website and found an earlier appointment, on Sunday in Barre.

“I know a lot of my colleagues have gotten vaccinated,” Mills said, adding, “if you want to get it right away, you might need to do a little bit of traveling. People are doing it.”

Even before the vaccinations, Mills said classes were starting to open up, with students able to spend more days in the classroom. As for how much the vaccine will change things before the end of the year, “that’s a question for Gov. (Phil) Scott.”

At his biweekly news conference Friday, Scott said that with the current pace of vaccination “we should be able to have a more traditional graduation” for high school seniors.

Educators are less clear about how much the school day will change in the near term. Students still will likely have to remain masked for the rest of the year. Vaccines for children under the age of 16 are still being developed and tested.

Most Upper Valley schools resumed in-person learning last fall, though many are still following a hybrid model in which students learn remotely at least one day a week.

While it’s unclear whether those schedules will change by the end of the year, what is clear is that a vaccinated corps of educators will make it easier to keep schools in session. Often, when schools have had cases of COVID-19, they have had to shift to remote learning for several days, or even a couple of weeks, as teachers who were in close contact with a person who tested positive were required to quarantine. Often, schools with positive tests didn’t have enough staff available to remain open.

That should become a thing of the past once teachers are vaccinated. “We would have fewer absences based on having to quarantine,” said Brendan Minnihan, superintendent of SAU 43 in Newport, N.H. School staff received first dose vaccines last Friday at a clinic at Grantham Town Hall run by the public health networks for Sullivan County and the Upper Valley, Minnihan said.

Rivendell Superintendent Barrett Williams said teachers have, like Doc Browne, been getting vaccinations wherever they can find them.

“I think it will change the level of anxiety that educators feel,” being in the classroom, Williams said. “It puts us in a place where we’ll be able to function at a higher level.”

The long-term picture also remains unclear. Williams said he wouldn’t be surprised if masks and distancing are still required when school resumes in the fall, but others are more hopeful.

“Wouldn’t that be wonderful if by next fall we could be back to normal?” Mills said. Remote learning has been hard on everyone, he added.

Still, remote learning is likely to remain a fixture of the education landscape. Schools in Newport, Claremont and the Fall Mountain Regional School District recently received a federal grant of nearly $1 million to enable synchronous remote learning throughout their schools. That means a student learning remotely could participate in an in-person class as it’s happening.

“I think it has a lot of possibilities for us,” Minnihan said.

The possibilities most educators are focused on, though, involve interacting with students in person.

Nicolette Raney, a teacher at Dothan Brook School, one of Hartford’s three elementary schools, said she didn’t feel strongly that teachers should be given priority in the vaccination line. She was vaccinated last weekend and it has changed her outlook somewhat. She’s still teaching in an outdoor classroom for most of the day.

“The fact that in 14 days I could potentially hug one of my students again,” she said, is something to look forward to.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com.




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