On August 5, 2020

Local school districts prioritize in-person instruction for youngest

By Katy Savage

As Gov. Phil Scott has encouraged school districts to return to in-person instruction this fall for students 10 and under, local superintendents are making plans in support.

Many districts are offering a choice between online and in person, but superintendents agree with childhood development experts who say in-person instruction is most important for the education and developmental needs of younger children.

Slate Valley Union Supervisory Union Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell said students’ basic needs aren’t met with remote learning. She said the school provides food for families as well as medical and dental care to some students, counseling services and after school care.

“Despite the best efforts of teachers, parents and students in the spring, remote learning simply did not provide a great education for the vast majority of students,” said Olsen-Farrell, adding that physically attending school gives students time to develop relationships with teachers.

“If you start the school year in just remote learning you no longer have that benefit and I believe that it could cause remote learning to be more challenging,” Olsen-Farrell said.

Rutland City Public Schools Superintendent Bill Olsen echoed those statements, explaining in-person instruction helps teachers better understand students’ learning styles.

“All students, and particularly the younger children, need to develop those interpersonal relationships with teachers and their peers in order to motivate and engage the learning,” Olsen said. “Being in school benefits the social-emotional well-being of our students.”

While Slate Valley, which includes the towns of Benson, Castleton, Fair Haven, Hubbardton, Orwell and West Haven is offering mandatory in-person instruction this fall, Rutland City Public Schools and Windsor Central school district are offering parents a choice between remote or in-person learning for all grades.

Students in grades pre-K-2 in the nearby Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, which includes the towns of Brandon, Goshen, Leicester, Pittsford, Sudbury and Whiting, will also have the option of attending school in-person or remotely, but RNESU students in grades 3-12 will only have the remote option for the first four weeks of school.

“I do think in-person learning is the desired goal of all school districts and specifically of RNESU,” Superintendent Jeanné Collins said.

White River Valley Supervisory Union is offering remote and in-person instruction. If elementary school students attend school in-person, the school day will end at 1:30 p.m., unless parents want their children to attend an enrichment program.

“We believe that we need to provide two plans to ensure equity across the SU,” White River Valley Superintendent Jamie Kinnarney said.

Vermont has seen one of the lowest number of Covid-19 cases in the nation, which Scott and health care professionals said supports reopening schools.

There have been 1,427 cases in the state as of Tuesday, Aug. 4. Of that, 49 kids 9 years old or younger have tested positive for the virus so far, while 108 kids 10-19 years of old have tested positive.

At a July 28 press conference, Scott said he was listening to experts who “recognize the negative social and developmental consequences of not having in-person instruction.”

The Vermont Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement on July 27 saying school districts should prioritize full-time attendance for students in preschool to grade 5.

“Schools in Vermont support the academic, social and developmental needs of children, help address food insecurity, and provide mental health services,” according to the July 27 statement from the organization.

Rebecca Bell, a pediatrician in Burlington, said younger students struggle the most with remote learning. Bell said the youth have different immune systems from adults and respond differently to illnesses.

“An enduring motto in my profession is that ‘children are not just little adults’,” Bell said at the governor’s press conference, July 28. “As we learn pediatric medicine, it’s tempting to think that children have the same anatomy and physiology as adults in just smaller packages. We learn instead that their physiology is unique in the way they respond to illness and that their bodies and minds have vastly different needs than adults, in times of illness and in health.”

Scott mandated that everyone wear face masks in the state starting Aug. 1 and pushed the start of school back to Sept. 8 to give districts more time to plan for changes to keep students and staff safe in light of the pandemic. The state issued guidelines for returning to school in June, but details are being left to individual districts to determine.

“We cannot direct specific implementation solutions from the state level since we cannot anticipate all of the local factors,” Agency of Education Sec. Dan French said at the press conference.

Meanwhile, Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine warned that the “virus is not going away.”

“As we are heading into flu season, there are bound to be rumors, misinformation and coronavirus scares swirling around in schools,” Levine said. “Please know that the Health Department, the Agency of Education and your local schools districts are committed to telling parents and communities the truth about what is happening.”

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