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Students, teachers prepare for an unprecedented school year in the pandemic

  • Hartford High School media specialist Margaret Cintorino, left, checks out laptop computers to stepsisters Kailie Bradley, 14, middle, and Leiyah Fisher, 14, right, of White RIver Junction, after their freshman orientation in White River Junction, Vt., Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. Cintorino said the school has about 150 of the computers that they are checking out to students for remote and in-person work. (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 photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Jim Hull, a paraprofessional at Dothan Brook School, replaces temporary COVID-19 information with more durable signs at all the doors of the school in Wilder, Vt., Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Dothan Brook School Principal Rick Dustin-Eichler helps fourth grade teachers Linda Gilbert, left, and Lanni West, right, measure their outdoor classroom space in Wilder, Vt., Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. Each grade at the school will have outdoor classroom space to be used as the weather allows as a precaution to keep students and staff safe from the novel coronavirus. “We’re seeing the value in (outdoor classes) a lot more,” said Dustin-Eichler. “That you’re not losing time when you come outside.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Music teacher Alicia Dale, right, shows off the face shield newly received from school nurse Andrea Morancy, left, at Dothan Brook School in Wilder, Vt., Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. Face shields are distributed to kindergarten through second grade teachers and staff at the school who work with students for social and emotional support. (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 — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/5/2020 9:41:36 PM
Modified: 9/5/2020 9:41:34 PM

WILDER — For the past three years, Nicolette Raney has been taking her Dothan Brook School third graders outside one day a week, part of a movement, both in the Upper Valley and nationwide, to get students away from screens and into the tactile world.

The arrival of the novel coronavirus in March turned that around; all learning was done online. But when school resumes at Dothan Brook on Tuesday, teaching will have turned another 180: Raney’s fellow teachers will all join her outdoors, in wooded classrooms or outdoor spaces near the elementary school in Wilder.

“Everyone was feeling a significant amount of loss in March, when we were separated,” she said last week. It will feel really good, she said, to see her colleagues and students every day, even if they will all have to be constantly mindful of the distance they must keep between them.

Students, teachers, administrators, parents, everyone associated with schools are about to begin a year like no other. Raney, who’s in her ninth year at Dothan Brook, said the start of every school year brings some anxiety because there are always some unknowns. But this year’s unknowns are dramatically bigger and more ominous.

While most schools operate in similar ways, that’s more true this year, because all must follow the same hygiene protocols set out by federal and state health agencies. All schools will require students to wear masks while indoors, and outdoors as well when a minimum physical separation of 6 feet can’t be maintained. This includes sports practices. Schools are planning outdoor “mask breaks,” where students can stand far enough apart to remove their masks.

Most schools are planning to make greater use of the outdoors, with many, like Dothan Brook, building or setting up makeshift outdoor spaces where students will spend most of their day. Cafeterias, gyms and other larger gathering spaces will be tightly managed, and students will be grouped into “pods” of 10 or fewer, an arrangement that limits close contacts among students and staff and also facilitates contact tracing should a case of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, pop up.

New Hampshire is maintaining a “dashboard” that will let the public know about any positive COVID-19 tests at schools. Vermont has not released such a plan, but the state Health Department’s guidance tells school administrators to “notify parents/caregivers and staff that a person with COVID-19 has been identified at the school,” and provides a template letter to send out.

At first, what most students will be learning at school will be social. Mask-wearing, hand-washing, distancing and other protocols meant to keep students and staff safe are lesson No. 1. Also, lesson No. 2. Some school districts had students on campus last week and started with those lessons.

Jamie Kinnarney, superintendent of the 10-town White River Valley Supervisory Union, called it “going slow in order to go fast and go far” into the school year. School staff will “teach, model, reinforce and reteach throughout the first months,” he said in an interview. Without fidelity to the health and safety protocols, schools run the risk of grinding to a halt and returning to remote learning.

The most important of these protocols begins at home, with a daily wellness check that every child must undergo before heading to school. Children with any symptoms of COVID-19 must stay home. Many districts will have staff or volunteers on buses to take students’ temperatures before they board. Schools are having students use multiple entrances, divided alphabetically, and at most schools, staff will check temperatures before students get out of their parents’ cars.

Once students arrive, the school day will look quite different from what students remember. Freedom of movement around the halls will be restricted, and classrooms will have designated restrooms they can use. Even schools that are open five days a week will be quite different. Schools in the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, for example, will dismiss students early each day, at 11:30 for high school students and at 12:30 for lower grades, according to the supervisory union’s written plans.

The White River Valley school districts, which range from Strafford west to Rochester, Vt., will have elementary students on campus five days a week, but middle and high school students will attend two days a week and spend three days working remotely. Many districts, particularly for upper grades, have chosen to divide their student bodies into two groups and bring them to campus for only two days a week.

Nearly every district has also offered a remote option for families who either can’t or don’t want to send children for in-person instruction. Rivendell Interstate School District has opted to remain fully remote, and some supervisory unions, including Windsor Southeast and SAU 6 in Claremont, have included home schooling, in which a student has no contact with teachers and parents provide curriculum, as options for families to consider.

In Vermont, home-schooling numbers have more than doubled, from 2,024 home-school enrollments through Aug. 27 last year to 4,455 enrollments through this Aug. 27. New Hampshire has seen an increase, but won’t tabulate its numbers until Oct. 1, Grant Bosse, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said last month.

Newport Superintendent Brendan Minnihan said about 80% of students were coming to school, which will be open five days a week, and 20% will be learning remotely. The district opted to reopen as fully as possible, given how low the number of COVID-19 cases has been in Sullivan County. Since March, Minnihan noted, there have been 47 cases and one death.

“Why don’t we at least give it a try now?” he said in an interview.

Students returned to campus last week in small groups to learn the protocols, and the school has set up pop-up tents for outdoor classes and gathered personal protective equipment, such as masks and hand sanitizer, though officials are “still waiting for supply reinforcements,” Minnihan said.

“All things being what they are, we’re in pretty good shape,” he said.

Hartford parent Sara Lamie in July had said she was hoping for a hybrid option so her daughter, who’s starting fourth grade, would have at least a couple of days a week at school. Instead, Dothan Brook will hold classes five days a week and education is either fully in-person or fully remote.

“I just felt like I didn’t have much choice there,” Lamie said. She’s going to send her daughter to school, she said, but it isn’t hard for to see where the school’s plans might go awry. If a child sneezes and coughs from allergies, will she be sent home? Will children be able to follow the hand-washing regimen?

She has faith in the school, though, and in its longtime principal, Rick Dustin-Eichler, whom she called “fantastic.”

Dothan Brook will start the year with about 200 children in person and about 25 learning remotely, Dustin-Eichler said in a phone interview. Another 10 will be home-schooled, he said.

He has made himself available to talk to parents, either by phone or in person or via email.

Lamie was reassured after communicating with him, but it doesn’t get easier as school approaches and new information rolls out. “It’s really strange how every little change feels so anxiety-provoking,” she said.

As school and public health officials have described the return to school, they stress that it’s the totality of the efforts to maintain safety that will make the difference. If families pay attention to masking, to where they travel, to hand-washing and physical distancing, and if the schools do the same, then an isolated case of COVID-19 might remain just that — isolated — and schools can stay open.

The biggest thing Raney, the Dothan Brook teacher, has noticed is how important community has been to the reopening effort. Parents turned out to help build outdoor classrooms on wooded land behind the school. The landowner allowed the classrooms to be built and when a couple of big dead trees endangered two of the classrooms, a local company, TNT Stump Grinding and Tree Service, took them down at no charge.

“Families are all out there just trying to do the best with what they have,” Raney said. If everyone is on board, the ship will stay afloat.

“We’ll be OK, because we have each other,” she said. “It’s been really heartwarming to see.”

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




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