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Vermont has left it to schools to determine details of reopening

Published: 8/10/2020 8:54:10 PM
Modified: 8/10/2020 8:54:38 PM

Vermont schools have long prided themselves on a tradition of local control, and the state has historically given its small districts a wide berth within which to operate.

This is one norm that the pandemic will not upend. As families prepare to send their children back to school in September, they face a wildly uneven landscape of reopening plans.

“It’s our normal set of inequities — on steroids — with a frame of life or death,” said Senate Education Committee chair Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden. As schools announce reopening plans, many parents opt to homeschool.

Gov. Phil Scott has handled the pandemic admirably well, Baruth added, mostly by making liberal use of his executive powers.

“Now he’s dramatically moved away from that approach when it comes to the reopening of schools. And I think we’re liable to see a less successful outcome,” Baruth said.

The lawmaker’s beliefs are widely shared on the ground, where administrators and rank-and-file educators alike complain that the state’s laissez-faire approach has left schools on their own to create plans, many of which do not align with one another.

“It seems like (the Agency of Education) has kicked these really, like, crucial decisions that really need to be coordinated at the state level back to districts. And now everyone is scrambling,” said Tevye Kelman, a social studies teacher at Randolph Union High.

There is no way to restart schooling without upsetting large numbers of people. An approach that leans heavily on in-person instruction is likely to alarm staff and teachers. A model that favors virtual learning, meanwhile, will infuriate parents, many of whom are desperate to send their children back to school in order to return to work. Vermonters in general are split on the subject — a recent VPR-Vermont PBS poll found that 47% favored reopening, 42% opposed it, and 11% weren’t sure.

The Scott administration has made clear it would like schools to reopen in the fall, but individual school districts must make the call about whether — and how much — to offer in-person instruction.

The vast majority have settled on some hybrid model, with a mix of face-to-face and online learning. But some schools want to bring teachers back into the building four days a week; others just two (some none at all). Some schools are offering all-remote and all-in-person options for families to choose from. From face-to-face learning five days a week to fully remote instruction, Vermont’s reopening plans run the gamut.

Several superintendents have already dealt with board revolts after putting forward reopening plans. In the Mad River Valley, the Harwood school board rejected the superintendent’s plan to offer one day per week of in-person instruction. In Rockingham, the school board chair resigned in protest after his peers sent their superintendent back to the drawing board.

David Younce, the superintendent of the Mill River Unified Union School District, said a common, unified approach would have been easier to sell to the wider community.

“These are really tough decisions. And when you’re making really tough decisions, it’s good to know that maybe you’ve got company,” said Younce, whose district was the first in Vermont to announce last week it would go fully remote in the fall.

Dan French, Vermont’s Secretary of Education, insists that the state has provided robust health and safety guidelines to districts, which local officials can then adapt to their local contexts. And he argues a more top-down approach would have only simplified matters logistically if the state had opted to force a more monolithic approach — online-only for all or fully in-person.

A mandate to reopen completely would have been rejected on the ground, he said, and a wholly remote fall wasn’t supported by the state’s public health conditions. Most districts ultimately opted for a hybrid model, which he says would have been difficult to coordinate at the state level.

“When you get into a pandemic, this is all unchartered territory. People want to be told exactly what to do. And the message that ‘Look, we can really tell you what to do up to a point, you still have to use your professional judgment,’ isn’t necessarily well received,” he said.

Jay Nichols, the executive director of the Vermont Principals Association, said he’s very worried about chaos on the ground given the state’s patchwork approach to restarting schools. And he also thinks it’s imperative that younger children be back in class in-person as soon as possible. But he’s not sure any such mandate would have been feasible in a state that so jealously guards its local control.

“In all fairness to the governor, the secretary (of education) and everybody else — that’s kind of been the Vermont way forever. Look at all the arguments we had over Act 46,” he said, referring to the state’s deeply controversial school district consolidation law.

Rebecca Holcombe, Vermont’s former secretary of education, argues the agency she once led could and should take more of a lead, and says there’s been little leadership, communication or coordination coming from the top.

“As one superintendent said to me, ‘It’s hard to drop the ball if you don’t pick it up,’” she said.

And Holcombe, who is now running for governor in the Democratic primary, also thinks the state could improve confidence about returning to school buildings safely by articulating a clear plan for testing and contact tracing within schools, as well as a uniform protocol for what to do if a student or staff member tests positive for the virus.

Instead of taking a strong hand in the reopening process, the governor has tried to use his bully pulpit to reassure educators that students can be welcomed back to class safely thanks to Vermont’s positivity rate, which is the lowest in the country and well below 1%.

His weekly press conferences have featured a roster of pediatricians and infectious disease specialists, who have urged a return to in-person instruction and highlighted research suggesting that younger children in particular are much less likely to catch and pass along the virus.

But the governor’s message has been met with skepticism by many educators, who argue that it elides uncertainty in the available scientific literature, and glosses over the risk that school workers are being asked to take on.

“I perceive this absolute certainty that they think everything’s going to be OK. And that’s just really confusing to me, because it seems like there’s absolutely no way that we know what’s going to happen,” said Peter Langella, a librarian at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg.

The state is in an enviable place, relative to the rest of the country, in terms of successfully suppressing the virus. And independent medical experts, both in Vermont and elsewhere, have urged a return to in-person schooling where infection rates are low, particularly for younger children and those with disabilities.

But the immense political pressure, nationally, to reopen is injecting a considerable amount of anxiety into the local conversation. As are tales from Israel, where a return to school with few health precautions in place appeared to lead to a surge in cases. (Schools in Europe, meanwhile, reopened without major outbreaks.)

Becca Polk, a social studies middle school teacher in Springfield, said she has difficulty with state reopening guidance that echoes the CDC’s, because the federal agency has repeatedly buckled under pressure from the Trump administration.

“It’s really hard to know which medical professionals to trust,” she said.

Amid a surge of cases nationally, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest educators’ union, called for “safety strikes” as a last resort if reopening plans don’t include adequate mitigation strategies. The Vermont-NEA, which represents the vast majority of the state’s educators, has not made similar threats, although it has urged the state to take a phased-in approach to reopening schools and asked for testing to be available upon request for staff and students.

Still, administrators across the state are nevertheless nervous about having enough educators to adequately staff in-person instruction. The NEA says about a third of its members have self-reported they are at high risk for COVID-19, and at least one central Vermont district has already reported a surge in leave requests.

“As principals, are they going to have enough staff to be able to pull this off? That worries me. And a lot of times, they’re not going to know they may not know until close to last minute. As more and more information comes out, people will make decisions,” said Nichols.

Workforce problems are compounded by the variability between reopening plans. With schools adopting different schedules for face-to-face learning, teachers will run into problems securing care if they are in the classroom while their own children are learning from home. Schools had trouble finding substitutes before the pandemic; the problem is widely expected to only get worse in a context where school workers will be expected to stay home at the first sign of illness.

“The potential is there to have a real shortage or short supply in the workforce,” said Vermont-NEA president Don Tinney.

Nichols says he’s hopeful that school districts that start out with remote instruction or a hybrid model will shift to in-person delivery, at least for the younger grades, if Vermont maintains its low rate of infections. But he admits that as September comes around the bend, he’s anxious.

“I’m not very confident,” he said. “But again — if we can’t pull this off, then I don’t think anybody can.”

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