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Education plans to vary by school district this fall

Elementary school students head back to class after lunch and recess at the Coventry Village School on Sept. 5, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

State delays school start to Sept. 8

By Katy Savage

Shortened days, delayed starts, partial remote learning, face masks and temperature checks — these are just some of the changes students can expect to see as the new school year approaches.

Superintendents across the state are in the midst of developing plans to safely bring students and staff back to school in the middle of the pandemic. Most are focusing on how to reduce student movement and gathering.

In Rutland City Public Schools, both remote and in-person instruction will be an option. Ninth grade students will have in-person instruction, while grades 10-12 will have remote learning every other day, with half of the students attending school and the other half learning at home before switching to reduce the number of students in the building.

The timing of the bell system in Rutland High School has also changed to give students more time to travel between classes and reduce congested hallways.

“We’re trying to meet the distancing expectations,” Rutland City Public School Superintendent William Olsen said. “We want to have the ninth grade in (school) because transitioning to high school is a challenge.”

All elementary school students in the Rutland district will have in-person instruction five days a week, but Olsen said remote learning will be available if parents don’t feel comfortable sending their kids to school.

“We’re trying to give parents and students a choice as to the setting they want to be in,” Olsen said. “We’re going to arrange our staffing so we can help kids learn remotely or learn in person.”

Olsen said the decisions were based on a parent survey, which revealed 24% of families preferred remote learning, while 59% wanted to return to in-person instruction.

Olsen is asking parents to confirm their choice now so the district can make arrangements.

Since Gov. Phil Scott required all schools to close in March and move to online learning, Olsen said the district has developed plans to work with students who struggled in the spring to catch up through a credit recovery program.

“Kids who were independent workers did really well,” Olsen said. “Some kids did prefer that kind of learning.”

Olsen is still finalizing the details of returning to school and expected to have more plans in place next week.

The Vermont Agency of Education and Department of Health issued reopening guidelines June 17, requiring students and staff to wear facial coverings and have daily health and temperature checks before arriving to school or getting on a bus, among other criteria. Cafeterias are also required to be closed.

On Tuesday, July 28, the Governor said that he supports the American Academy of Pediatrics Vermont Chapter in encouraging in-person instruction, especially for kids 10 and under 10, who are the least likely to spread the disease and most in need of in-person instruction for developemental advancement, health and education experts agree.

However, such specifics on reopening are largely being left to individual districts. Some districts are working together to come up with plans.

The Rochester-Stockbridge Unified School District is offering both remote and in-person learning for students in grades K-12 for the first trimester.

Rochester-Stockbridge Superintendent Jamie Kinnarney is asking families to pick either mode of instruction by Aug. 14 and continue with that until the trimester is over unless permission is granted to switch.

“This is an attempt to provide as much needed predictability as possible for day-to-day teaching/learning,” Kinnarney said in a letter to the school community.

Meanwhile, Slate Valley Union Union School District is offering in-person instruction only for grades K-8. No online only option for younger students. Then, similar to Rutland High School, Fair Haven Union High school students will attend classes remotely every other day, with half the students in the building and half learning the same material at home before switching every other day.

“We’re focusing on an in-person experience,” Slate Valley Unified Union School District Board chair Tim Smith said. “We’re not offering a menu like some of the other districts are.”

Smith said a community survey showed 95% of parents wanted students to return to in-person instruction. Smith said most staff members were also “overwhelmingly willing and ready to return to the classroom,” though he admitted five teachers in the district have stepped forward about health concerns.

“We’ve made necessary arrangements to make them feel better about a safe return,” Smith said.

The school district has an early retirement incentive in place for teachers who don’t want to return to in-person instruction. Smith said two teachers have taken advantage of the incentive so far.

The school day for Slate Valley schools will also be shortened by one hour to give teachers time to plan lessons because students will be required to stay in their classrooms all day.

“Teachers won’t have as much of a break or time to plan,” Smith said. “They’re contractually allowed to have a certain amount of planning time.”

In addition to specific day-to-day learning changes, Jeffrey Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents’ Association, said many superintendents wanted to push the first day of school back a week, from Aug. 31 to to the day after Labor Day, Sept. 8. Francis said 50 of the 55 superintendents in the state recently responded to a one-question survey. Thirty-four of them supported the delayed start of school, while 10 were unsure and six wanted to start on the usual schedule.

“The delayed opening is acknowledgment of the complexities and more time is needed to get all the plans in place,” Francis said.

Scott agreed and signed an executive order on Tuesday, July 28, to delay the start of Vermont’s preK-12 public schools to Sept. 8.

Many school districts have yet to finalize plans and are awaiting further input from parents and instruction from the state.

Last month the Vermont Principals’ Association sent a proposal to the state for high school sports to be delayed until the start of school — delaying or canceling the preseason. That plan still awaits state-level approval, which is expected in the comping weeks, Scott said Tuesday.

Even the best laid plans will need to be flexible and responsive to to changes. If Vermont sees a surge in Covid-19, remote learning will need to be implemented.

But Scott said, “we are in a better position that any other in country to return to school,” and he is confident that schools can reopen safely.

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