Covid-19 updates

Superintendents grapple with whether to close K-12 schools

Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger


By Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

Brooke Olsen-Farrell, the school superintendent in the Slate Valley, usually meets with other members of her regional superintendents group once a month.

But these days, members of the Southwest Superintendents Association – which extends from Bennington to north of Rutland – check in with each other several times a day as they manage the fast-moving tide of information about COVID-19 flowing toward them from the state Agency of Education and the Vermont Department of Health.

“All the area superintendents have been back and forth via email for days” about the impact of the COVID-19 virus, said Olsen-Farrell.

The virus, which has halted business and leisure travel and prompted the widespread cancellation of events in Vermont and worldwide, was first documented in December. It has spread rapidly, killing an estimated 4,000 people worldwide and sickening 120,000. There had been two cases of the virus confirmed in Vermont by Thursday.

“To the extent possible, we are making decisions that are relatively in line with each other, like how are we responding to field trips; are we allowing teachers to leave the state for professional development opportunities; are we allowing outside organizations to use our buildings,” said Olsen-Farrell. “Those are all things we’re trying to get some general consensus on as a group.”

Vermont’s K-12 education system provides an array of services to 80,000 students, employs more than 18,000 people and consumes one-third of the state’s budget. Any decision that affects school activities or students has an impact in the local community.

Accordingly, superintendents and other educational leaders this week are studying guidance from the state Agency of Education and talking to their peers as they try to make decisions that affect an array of people.

Earlier this week, two schools in the Vermont K-12 system closed temporarily as a precaution; all public schools were open Thursday. On Tuesday, Middlebury College asked students to leave for an indefinite period, saying coursework would be provided online. The next day, most other Vermont colleges and universities, including the University of Vermont, followed suit.

But it’s not clear there’s any way for K-12 schools to move instruction online.

“We don’t feel that our district would be able to offer online educational opportunities; many of our households do not have broadband, we just don’t have the capacity,” said Olsen-Farrell. “Our team has decided there is a real equity issue in terms of access to education in that case.”

Barre Superintendent John Pandolfo said parents have been asking him how online instruction would work. Staff are checking in on planned parent-teacher conferences next week. One asked if staff should work if their immune systems are compromised.

“Or, ‘I’m low on paid time off,’” Pandolfo gave as an example. “If I have to stay home because I feel sick, or I’m showing symptoms, is that going to put me in a situation where I can lose my job?’”

“We’re taking all of the guidance and updates that we get from the Agency of Education and sharing that as soon as we get it,” Pandolfo said.

Closing a K-12 school has an impact on parents who don’t have child care lined up to take over when they go to work. Pandolfo said a local employer told him closing school could make it difficult for them to respond if the outbreak of COVID-19 worsens. If school is closed, those workers will stay home to take care of their kids.

“Which is absolutely understandable,” Pandolfo said. “That wouldn’t keep me from doing the right thing, but it’s something that I have to consider.”

Many people have told administrators that they worry what will happen to children who depend on school for their breakfast and lunch.

“I really worry about our kids in poverty,” said Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association. “Many families depend on those meals.”

“It is definitely tricky,” said Jennifer Nesson, a parent of two elementary students in Essex Junction who is on leave from her Burlington teaching job this year. “I kind of feel like until there is some connection (with the virus) to the school, it should stay open.

“It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is,” said Nesson. “A really important thing is food for kids who are underprivileged.”

Several people have contacted the state Agency of Education with opinions about closing the K-12 schools, said agency spokesperson Ted Fisher. Olsen-Farrell said several parents have encouraged her to close the schools; nobody has contacted her to ask her to keep them open.

But both emphasized that the situation changes by the hour.

“I have no idea what is going to happen with K-12; it all depends what happens in terms of the number of people who get the virus,” Nichols said. “I understand the public health concerns. If one kid with the virus is in school with other kids, it can spread rapidly.”

Fisher noted that the Agency of Education is working with the state Board of Education to determine whether schools that close temporarily will have to add days at the end of the year to make up the lost time.

Meanwhile, Slate Valley, like most other institutions, is canceling gatherings in its buildings to prevent the spread of the virus. The district also called off two class trips, one to North Adams, Massachusetts, and one to Washington, D.C., this spring.

“We had to make a decision by yesterday in order to get money back,” said Olsen-Farrell. “We have a lot of disappointed children.”

2 comments on “Superintendents grapple with whether to close K-12 schools

  1. I am a mother of a child that attends Rutland county school district… I also have a brain stem tumor, a compromised immune system, COPD and I have struggled for two years to come this far in life. I unfortunately was diagnosed two years ago and can not afford for my child to bring home germs/virus of this nature. I would have a very hard time beating this offal virus. I honestly do not think I would survive! I pulled my child from school at the beginning of the week. He had been sick from school for over a month and half. He got both strands of the fluA and fluB. He then followed that up with pneumonia and a double ear infection and sinus issues! School is a major issue for parents or relatives that have underline health issues and children do well with the virus, but that doea not mean all children! My child also has asthma and a compromised immune system!
    I think for the safety of children with health issues, and parents to be protected schools should be closed immediately.
    This is not a question of money this is a question and worry of peoples lives! Usually children do well with the virus but that does not stop them from spreading it to other adults.
    My child’s teacher was at his school sick and that’s what made me pull my child from school since that dangerous move against the CDCs recommendation and the board of health was all I needed to know my life and my families life was in grave danger. I do not have anyone to take care my children as my husband does fighting for this country and I will not take the chance they will lose there only parent. I have fought to hard for a teacher to be working sick passing that along to my child to being home.
    My home is a safe zone and free from germs and precautions have been put into place. I did not see that taking place in the School zone on the least! The president warned and asked “ if your sick STAY HOME” this was not being followed so I had no choice!
    I do understand people have there own unique situations for work and home. I also understand people worry about pay and bills as I do! However some families that the children have the potential to pass this along to can not expose themselves to that risk.
    The president has put in money for the people affected by the loss of work which I am sure that would include teachers and aid for loss wages! If your worried about food for children then work a program out for delivery to children or open the doors at the school at certain times. There is several options. There is a program called Zoom that can have teachers teach there kids on the Internet! There is always a way when there is a will… The kids that do not have access have a package picked up once a week and returned into school. There is always a way when we’re talking about such a scary race for time of saving people’s lives.
    I hope the school starts thinking of the seriousness of this situation as the children carry the virus to others so clearly there is a connection and we do not know how wide spread this virus is since we do not have enough tests to test everyone only serious conditional patients! I respect the school and since I have reached out and explained I will not take the chance of my child getting sick the principal has been very accommodating. His teacher has got his work to go home and study, however this is my example of how this can and will spread easy without the correct choices.

  2. It is unconscionable that our K-12 schools are still open. After emails back and forth with my superintendent, they are waiting for someone in the schools to be infected before closing our schools and keeping our children, teachers and staff safe. Yes there are implications with childcare and meals but this is a national emergency. Theses are extraordinary times and require extraordinary measures to keep everyone safe. Shame on you Vermont for putting our children at risk.

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