By Lola Duffort/VTDigger
With Vermont seeing one of the country’s slowest rates of growth for coronavirus infections, K-12 officials have said they intend to have students back in classrooms come fall. But schools will look starkly different, they warn. And all plans are subject to change.
“The best thing about it is the whole nation’s in this together, so we’re figuring it out,” said Jeanne Collins, president of the Vermont Superintendents Association. “But the worst thing about it is there really aren’t any models.”
Administrators say they’re exploring a roster of options that fall into one of three categories: remote learning, in-person instruction, or some hybrid model, which could see students in school on alternating days or younger children at school while older students remain at home, for example.
In consultation with the teachers union, the organizations representing principals and superintendents, and the Department of Health, the Agency of Education has started crafting guidance for reopening.
Dan French, Vermont’s secretary of education, believes that planning for any of the three models under consideration – virtual, in-person, or some hybrid version – isn’t even the trickiest part. It’s assuming that schools will likely have to do all of the above.
Districts will need to plan on moving back-and-forth between remote and in-person instruction as infection rates wax and wane, French said. Officials may hope to start the school year with children back in classrooms, but rolling closures at some or all schools are likely.
“The idea that we are possibly – no doubt, probably – going to be shifting between and among the dispositions and how we do that is I think going to be our greatest challenge,” he said.
There is tremendous pressure to reopen schools, particularly as people return to work. But education and health officials also worry about the effects of long-term school closures on children, particularly where the most vulnerable students are concerned.
Mental health experts worry that isolation is exacerbating depression and anxiety. And child advocates are alarmed about the abuse and neglect cases that aren’t being caught because children are out of sight.
“It’s a question about really learning how to live with the virus to a certain extent. And an acknowledgement that certainly there’s obviously a public health risk associated with the virus, but there’s also a health risk associated with students not being in school,” French said.
Schools were shut down in mid-March to help tamp down the rate of new infections, as public health authorities suspected that K-12 buildings would be ideal spaces for the virus to spread.
But there is now a debate among researchers about the extent to which children drive transmission of the disease in the community. (There is a general consensus that children have a much lower risk of severe illness or death from Covid-19.)
Emerging studies about the virus suggests children may be far less infectious than adults, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said last week.
Levine cautioned anyone from “making premature conclusions,” and emphasized public health authorities were eagerly awaiting further data. But recent studies from France, Switzerland and Australia, Levine said, all appeared to show that adults, and not children, were much more often the vectors for transmission.
“The conclusions of all these studies together were that schools may not be as significant a driver of these infections as previously thought and that adults may be more likely to be the source in a family unit than the child,” he said.
New guidance from the CDC provides a rough sketch of what schools could look like if children and teens return to school in the fall. The federal agency recommends masks for adults and older students, frequent cleaning and disinfecting, and physical barriers like sneeze guards in high-traffic areas, including reception desks.
Schools should also ensure that student and staff groupings are as static as possible by having the same cohort of children assigned to the same educators, according to the federal health agency. Staggered arrival and drop-off times could limit contact between different groups of students and with parents. And communal spaces, like cafeterias, should be shut down wherever possible.
“They’ll probably serve food in classrooms in a lot of places, I suspect. It’s going to be a whole new way of thinking, at least until there’s a vaccine,” said Jay Nichols, the executive director of the Vermont Principals Association.
Nichols said the CDC’s guidance is a great place to start. But some suggestions – like seating one child per row on a school bus – may not be practical.
“What do we do about school buses? If we follow the CDC guidance, that means we triple the cost for school buses in the state of Vermont. And we don’t have the drivers anyway,” he said.
Extracurricular activities will also be a thorny question. Education officials say clubs and sports are critical for giving students a sense of belonging and wellbeing. But the programs could be hard to operate safely.
The VPA also oversees sports for students in grades 7-12, and Nichols said the organization has formed a panel tasked with crafting new protocols for sporting events in a pandemic. As long as schooling is in person, the VPA would like schools to offer sports in some fashion.
“I think we need to do everything we can to make sure that these kids have sports,” he said. “But it may look a lot different than it has in the past. Maybe there’s a limited number of fans.”
And in a traditionally local-control state, where K-12 schools are administered by more than 100 individual school districts, educators will need to be clear about who is in charge of what as the situation evolves.
“What are the decisions that need to be made at the state level?” asked Don Tinney, the president of the Vermont-NEA. “What are the very specific guidelines that can be issued from the Vermont Agency of Education so that we’re not asking our local folks to make major public health decisions?
Another key question in the context of Vermont’s patchwork education system: Who pays for personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies?
“Is it fair to say to a school district — you’re on your own to get all the masks that you need?” Tinney said. “How do we make sure that the PPE is in place in every school building?”
French said Vermont might use federal relief dollars to buy supplies for school districts, although districts would likely have to help foot the bill. The state also hopes to coordinate purchasing of the equipment, he said.
Collins, who is also the superintendent in the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, said PPE and cleaning supplies were her primary concern at this point. Without them, no in-person teaching is possible.
“There’s a real shortage of cleaning supplies and it’s why we decided not to do summer programs. We just can’t get ahead of this,” Collins said.