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For parents in the age of coronavirus, back-to-school isn’t a time of year; it’s a debate

  • Campers at the South Royalton One Planet summer program, Olivia Irish, 9, Partick Ryan, 10, middle, and Tavian Kilmer, 10, all of South Royalton, Vt. maintain a safe physical distance when on the swings on Thursday, July 16, 2020 in South Royalton. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Tara Tucker, site coordinator, talks with Sunshine Rogers, 7, of South Royalton, Vt., during the South Royalton One Planet summer program on Thursday, July 16, 2020 in South Royalton, Vt. Campers and staff at the program are required to wear masks inside. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Assistant teacher Amanda Sinclair distributes hand sanitizer to Lucymae Marcroft-Rikert, 11, left, Natalie Irish, 13, and Tavian Kilmer, 10, all of South Royalton, Vt., at the South Royalton One Planet summer program on Thursday, July 16, 2020 in South Royalton. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • At the South Royalton One Planet summer program, assistant teacher Hannah Rea helps Gretchen Werner, 6, of South Royalton, Vt., open her juice on Thursday, July 16, in South Royalton, Vt. Rea has been working at the summer program for three years. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • At the South Royalton One Planet summer program, sisters Olivia, 9, and Natalie Irish, 13, left, play with Patrick Ryan, 10, and Tavian Kilmer, 10, all of South Royalton, Vt., on the playground of the White River Valley School in South Royalton on Thursday, July 16, 2020. When outside, campers need to keep six feet apart or have a mask on. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/18/2020 9:26:04 PM
Modified: 7/18/2020 9:26:01 PM

During the three months of remote learning this spring, Chelsea McDowell’s relationship with her two school-age children steadily crumbled.

In addition to a daughter in second grade and a son in kindergarten, she also has 2-year-old twin girls and operates a small day care at her Lebanon home. Her efforts to oversee her children’s schoolwork after the novel coronavirus forced schools to close were fragmented, though she persevered.

“They saw me as ‘the bad guy’ who only wanted them to do work,” McDowell wrote in an email. “My son shut down completely and would throw an all-day fit rather than write the letter M 10 times.”

The reopening of Hanover Street School would be a welcome development, to say the least. The scientific and health care establishments are on her side: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended last week that schools strive to reopen this fall. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott has called for schools to reopen, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu has left it up to school districts to decide whether to reopen.

Parents say they are torn. While some want their children to attend school, even if only for a couple of days a week, many say they don’t feel schools can reopen without putting families and teachers at risk of infection with COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

The decision to reopen schools carries immense pressures. Many parents need schools to be open to be able to go to work. Pediatricians point out that children need not just academic advancement but social time with friends. And schools provide support that goes far beyond the classroom, everything from meals to counseling, special education to speech and occupational therapy.

But fear and uncertainty about the coronavirus is more widespread than the virus itself.

Many districts plan to announce their reopening plans in the next week or two, and many seem likely to adopt a hybrid approach that mixes some classroom time with remote learning or that gives families the option to keep their children at home, an approach that both Vermont and New Hampshire will allow.

“We know a lot more about the virus today than we did three months ago, and we’ll know a lot more a couple months from now, so whatever schools and communities do really needs to be nimble and flexible and responsive to the current reality,” Dr. Steven Chapman, medical director at Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Boyle Community Pediatrics Program, said in a Facebook Live talk Wednesday about schools reopening.

While acknowledging that “there’s a lot of nervousness and a lot of worry,” Chapman cited data from YMCAs around the country that have operated child care programs for essential workers, serving 40,000 children in more than 1,000 locations.

“The transmission and the likelihood of catching COVID was extraordinarily low,” he said. “There were really no outbreaks that shut down any of those day cares.”

Another study found that only 0.16% of children developed an infection and the rate of infection among child care providers was lower than in the surrounding communities, he said.

‘Proper precautions’

Schools will need to put a series of protocols in place, Chapman said. Parents will need to check temperatures at home and will have to keep children showing any symptoms — coughing, fever, stomach bug signs — at home, no exceptions. Schools will need to screen students as well, and children will have to wear masks, he said.

Vermont’s guidelines for reopening schools are unequivocal: “All staff and students are required to wear facial coverings while in the building, as well as outside where physical distancing cannot be maintained.”

“The current data and what we know is that day cares, with proper precautions, with masks, with staying home if you’re sick, if you have a fever, are really safe places to be,” Chapman said.

Further, Vermont and New Hampshire have had very few cases among children. Only 5% of cases in New Hampshire were in children under 18. And of those, only 1.5% were hospitalized, a total of nine children, all of whom “have done relatively well,” he said.

For many parents, any risk to children is too much risk.

“I don’t think it’s safe,” said Tammi DeFelice, a Canaan resident whose three children are home-schooled, but who participate in music and band programs through the Mascoma Valley Regional School District.

She said she plans to keep her children out of the Mascoma programs if they aren’t taught via remote learning. She doesn’t feel children will be able to tolerate wearing masks, particularly younger children, and that being in a place where they have to maintain physical distance out of concern for the virus “would be scary for kids. ... That’s just having kids living in fear.”

By Saturday afternoon, 126 people had signed an online petition calling on the Hartford School District to make remote learning an option for families who want or need it.

“Rather than traveling to a classroom to sit with a mask all day, and depend on the hygiene of the other students to protect their entire family,” the petition says, “these families need to be afforded the option to continue home-based learning, without penalty, as coordinated by the teachers. The option to remain holding in place with distance learning would benefit the district as well, as it would provide a much-needed decrease in class sizes as well as assist busing concerns.”

When remote learning began for Sara Lamie, her daughter, then in third grade, and son, 2, both came home as Hartford’s Dothan Brook School ended in-person classes and her son’s day care, Cradle and Crayon in Hanover, shut down. Her own work, as a physical therapist and yoga teacher, also shut down and her husband worked from home.

“That made the virtual learning really challenging for us,” Lamie said. Her husband was trying to sit in on meetings while Lamie had to wrangle her toddler and keep her daughter on track. The teachers did a great job, but the added technical challenges of submitting work online were sometimes too much.

Lamie would like to see Hartford hold some classes, but doesn’t think a return to full-time schooling would be safe. “It’s just too risky,” she said.

A few short blocks of time at school each week, preferably held mostly outdoors and as much for socialization as for academics, would enable her to get back to work, even on a limited basis, and would enable her daughter to see her friends and connect with teachers.

“It could be really valuable for social and emotional health for kids,” she said.

Sense of community

Like Lamie, other families are balancing the competing desires of wanting their children to be back in school and wanting their children to be safe.

“As a family, our preference is to send her to school, if it’s safe,” said Kate Plumley Stewart, whose 6-year-old daughter attends Enfield Village School. She, too, expects the Mascoma Valley Regional School District will combine in-person and remote learning.

The question many are facing is whether the community will rally and do what’s necessary. Even after four months of life with the coronavirus, not everyone takes seriously the warnings and recommendations of public health officials.

Stewart, who is also chairwoman of the Enfield Selectboard, said the board is likely to consider a mask ordinance this week, and the safety of the schools is part of the discussion.

“If we did it as a community, to keep general populations safe, it would help the schools,” she said.

Community came up again and again in Chapman’s talk. Parents in particular need to present to children the idea that the pandemic-driven safety measures are not something to fear.

“This is how we take care of each other, this is how we’re part of a community, this is how we’re part of a school community,” he said. “We respect each other. I look out for you, you look out for me.”

Some schools are already making trial runs with summer programs. The schools in the White River Valley Supervisory Union are holding camps for several weeks.

At the camp in South Royalton, children are spending at least half of the day outside, Tara Tucker, the site coordinator. Children must wear masks when they’re inside one of the two classrooms, which are for grades 1 to 3 and grades 4 to 6. The camp is based on a summer program run in years past, but this one is shortened, running from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Mondays through Thursdays for five weeks.

“Honestly, the kids have done so great,” Tucker said. “They’re just so happy to be around each other again.”

McDowell, who wants to send her two children back to Hanover Street School, said they have already adjusted to wearing masks.

“I feel comfortable sending my kids to school. They have flawlessly gotten into the habit of wearing a mask and understand social distancing and the massive amount of hand sanitizer we’ve started using when we go out,” McDowell wrote. “I’m confident they can also do this at school if need be.”

Stewart agreed.

“I have a child who’s 6 who will wear a mask happily,” she said. “Children are super-adaptable.”

The question now is how adaptable their parents and other adults are. The stakes are high in so many ways, and it appears that the answer is different for each family.

“Kids can’t defer their development,” Chapman said. “You only have one shot at being a 5-year-old. And they’re going to develop regardless of where they are, and we think schools are important not just for academics but for social, developmental, for learning how to interact with peers, being in a group — all those things are just as important.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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