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As Vermont refines remote learning, NH holds out hope schools will reopen in May

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/1/2020 8:51:16 PM
Modified: 4/1/2020 9:08:35 PM

When Vermont and New Hampshire first sent students home, they were more or less on the same page, ordering a three-week halt to classes and a switch to “remote learning.”

But last week, the two states diverged. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott extended remote learning through the end of the school year, while New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu extended it through May 4.

In one respect, though, Scott’s action brought Vermont into line with New Hampshire, which had implemented a more rigorous approach to remote learning from the beginning.

“New Hampshire has kind of maintained the idea that we’re going to be teaching” and maintaining standards, said Barrett Williams, superintendent of the Rivendell Interstate School District. Rivendell, which comprises Fairlee, West Fairlee, Vershire and Orford, follows the Vermont Agency of Education’s regulations, but Williams pays attention to both states.

At first, Vermont planned to prevent students from regressing, Williams said, but as the plan was extended, state officials have become more stringent about what schools must try to accomplish. Schools must submit a draft plan by April 13 for the Agency of Education to review and offer guidance.

At Rivendell, Williams said, officials felt that the first three weeks of remote learning allowed for families, faculty and students to prepare for an extended time off.

The extension of remote learning through the end of the year brings with it many more requirements, said Bruce Labs, superintendent of the White River Valley Supervisory Union.

“I think the whole driving force behind that is that we’re keeping standards up and so that we’re not losing any kids,” Labs said, adding that, “it’s made us think more long-term.”

With revenue sources that feed Vermont’s education fund beginning to lag, state officials have faced questions about whether school districts would lay off staff.

“I think it’s premature for districts to consider staffing ramifications,” Education Secretary Dan French said in the governor’s Friday news conference. Once school districts have implemented their remote learning plans, “we’ll be in a better position to determine what the staffing patterns will be to support that work.”

In a subsequent email, French noted that “staffing decisions are local decisions.”

Labs was unequivocal on the subject of layoffs in the 10-town supervisory union he oversees: “No, because these people have contracts and it specifies how many days they work in their contracts. ... I can’t go back on what I promised them.”

School districts are already saving money in other ways, Labs said, citing not heating buildings, reduced transportation costs and reduced spending on everything from supplies to uniforms for sports teams.

In explaining his decision to extend remote learning at Friday’s news conference, Scott said he hoped to provide schools with some consistency.

“People want to know what’s going to happen, and if we put this plan into place I think we’ll get better as time goes on,” he said. “Rather than allow for false expectations, rather than wait for a month down the road, when if you do bring them back it would only be for a month, that may not be the best strategy.”

In New Hampshire, state officials are trying to keep schools in sync with other state institutions that have also been shuttered, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said in a phone interview. It would seem incongruous if, for example, restaurants open but the schools can’t, Edelblut said.

“It doesn’t mean that it won’t be extended,” beyond May 4, if necessary, Edelblut said of the switch to remote learning.

By switching to remote learning for the rest of the school year, Vermont officials appear to have foreclosed the prospect of schools reopening should social distancing guidelines relax enough to enable businesses to reopen.

“I wouldn’t take anything from the extension or dismissal of the schools to indicate what our plan is in terms of businesses,” Scott said last Friday. “Our hope, really, is that businesses will be allowed to go back to work at some point when it’s safe, and when we think the timing is right.”

Asked about this on Monday, French replied, “The decision to reduce or modify the broader social distancing measures will be based on science and the best public health information. The impact on schools, families and businesses will be considered as well.”

Williams said that if New Hampshire does end up reopening schools in May, Rivendell might consider reopening as well.

“I would say that that is something that we’re going to have to explore,” he said.

But he doubts it will come to that. Vermont educators are planning to finish the school year teaching and learning at a distance.

“I expect,” Williams said, “that New Hampshire will follow suit.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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