K-12 schools grapple with holiday exposure risks to Covid-19, potential outbreaks, staffing
By Curt Peterson
An explosive increase in Covid-19 cases across the U.S. and now Vermont are inspiring many reactive decisions — perhaps none more consequential than those regarding education.
Education Secretary Dan French said at the Nov. 13 pandemic press conference the state may be forced to mandate totally-remote learning at all Vermont schools.
French described three possible scenarios: Some degree of hybrid remote/in-person learning currently in place, adjusting scheduling to accommodate the holiday breaks, or mandating totally-remote learning from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.
The decision will depend on science and data, French said.
Local districts have been wrestling with this possibility for some time, well before the coronavirus explosion.
“We had anticipated some of this from the beginning of the year,” said Dr. David Baker, superintendent of Windsor South East Supervisory Union, which includes Hartland Elementary School. “So we have the week after Thanksgiving where we are totally remote. This gives a chance for incubation and then a person/student could get tested to avoid the full 14-day quarantine. The decision to extend that to more than a week is under consideration, but [we won’t decide] unless the state pushes for a full shut-down.”
Students, parents, families, faculty and staff in each district are anxiously following developments. With Thanksgiving only days away, the WSESU plan covers at least some of the tentative period. But the fear of a state-mandated fully-remote shutdown from Thanksgiving through New Year, and possibly beyond, looms overhead.
What will families do about child care for younger students? Who will supervise older students’ remote studying? What effect will expanded remote-learning have on parents’ employment? What travel plans for families or incoming relatives will have to be canceled or changed? How will families accommodate the quarantine requirements following any travel? Or will they at all?
Consequences of holiday-inspired infection could be dire. According to Windsor Central Unified Union School District bulletins, three or four teachers on sick leave in each of three elementary schools, including Killington Elementary, would mean closing them. Two missing custodians or three kitchen workers would also pause operations.
From the district administrators’ point of view, they question if an extended shutdown would encourage more travel by families and staff and inadvertently create increased subsequent risk following the holidays?
“I do not have control over how families will comply with state mandates and how Covid will potentially spread in our communities,” WCUUSD superintendent Sherry Sousa told the Mountain Times. “I am hoping for the best, and planning for the possibility of having to go fully remote.”
District superintendents have no time for hand-wringing, but seem able to see the positive, even in darkest times.
“At this moment in time, our faculty and students are well enough to have our schools remain open,” Sousa said. “Our greatest responsibilities are to keep everyone healthy and to keep students with their teachers, in person, as long as we can.”
For those outside the administration offices, with no control over state or district decisions, not knowing how to plan for the holidays will be stressful.