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Scott moves Vermont’s mandatory school start date to Sept. 8

Published: 7/28/2020 9:35:37 PM
Modified: 7/28/2020 9:39:55 PM

Vermont school districts will reopen Sept. 8 this year, a week later than many had planned, under an executive order Gov. Phil Scott announced Tuesday.

It will be up to the school districts to decide whether to offer remote learning, in-person instruction or a combination of the two — although state officials strongly recommended in-person instruction for children under 10.

Scott, along with his Health Commissioner Mark Levine and other health experts, urged districts to prioritize getting younger students back into classrooms.

“We want schools to take the time to get this right, so students can hit the ground running,” Scott said at his Tuesday press conference. “Without that in mind, I’ll issue an executive order later this week setting Tuesday, Sept. 8, as a universal start date for students.”

Though the state sets the minimum number of days students must be in school, districts usually set their own calendars, and Vermont’s schools have traditionally jealously guarded their local control. But many education officials have sought a more coordinated approach to reopening preK-12 schools in the pandemic, and both the Vermont NEA and a majority of the state’s superintendents support pushing back the school year.

The issue of the school starting date, and the structure of the instruction, has been an intense focus for parents, teachers and others in Vermont this summer. Most school districts have said they were ready to adopt hybrid schedules that would blend some in-person instruction with remote learning, according to preliminary plans released by superintendents in mid-July.

Secretary of Education Dan French emailed organizations representing superintendents, principals and school boards last week asking if they would be OK with the Sept. 8 start date.

“This is uncharted territory that acknowledges a considerable amount of uncertainty and anxiety,” French said at Tuesday’s press conference, adding that starting after Labor Day “gives us a bit of extra time to make these preparations to take advantage of this time to make sure the new school year can be successful.”

But the amount of remote learning versus in-person instruction that students will receive differs significantly from district to district. And while many plan to offer a fully remote option for every family that wants it, that’s not a guarantee all schools say they can make. Access to Wi-Fi is still a concern in many areas.

Critics of plans to open for in-person instruction have said it would put students and teachers at risk of catching and spreading COVID-19, and that superintendents are bowing to pressure from the Scott administration and businesses whose employees need the child care provided by school in order to return fully to their jobs.

Superintendents have also asked for more guidance.

“Under the guise of local control and the need to respond flexibly to the differences in each district, leaders were told by state officials to basically go figure it out,” Harwood Unified School District Superintendent Brigid Nease wrote July 25 in an open letter that was widely shared on social media. “Many superintendents and principals truly cannot sleep at night.”

The debate about school reopening dates is going on nationally and has become divided along political lines, with many teachers and unions accusing the Trump administration of putting the economic recovery before the safety of school workers and students.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging for schools to reopen, saying that if children become infected with COVID-19, they rarely suffer severe symptoms. The CDC notes that a lack of in-person instruction disproportionately harms low-income and minority children, those with disabilities and others who might not have access to the private instruction and parental help that many children will experience this autumn.

Levine, the health commissioner, began Tuesday’s press conference with a strong endorsement of sending kids back to school.

“Based on the trends that we’ve been seeing for some time now, I continue to believe we’ve come to a point in our response to this virus that allows us to bring our children back to school in a carefully considered, measured and safe way,” he said. “In Vermont, this is the right time to open schools.”




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