By Chea Waters Evans, News editor
While other states have already rolled out plans for public school openings in the fall, Vermont is still trying to figure out what education will look like for students in light of the coronavirus pandemic. The Vermont Agency of Education, the Vermont National Education Association (the union of Vermont educators), the Vermont Department of Health, and individual school districts, as well as the Vermont Principals Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association, in conjunction with the governor’s office, are all trying to figure out what exactly Vermont educators and students will be doing this fall and when it’s all going to happen.
On June 11, the VT NEA released a statement in which Don Tinney, the association’s president, said that recent assurances from the state government that schools will be open for in-person instruction in some form in the fall was “unfortunate” because there were no tangible plans in place yet for what that instruction would look like.
The union released a list of requirements that would make teachers ready for in-person instruction, which covers topics from wide-spread internet access to availability of masks and other personal protective equipment to testing and screening students and school staff for COVID-19. These requirements need to be addressed within a short period of time; Champlain Valley School District schools are scheduled to start the academic year on August 25.
Student, educator, and community safety is a major discussion factor and at the top of the priority list, in one way or another, for all parties involved. One requirement the VT NEA stated is the need for students to be tested and monitored for the virus on a regular basis. “The time question is an important one,” Tinney said in a conversation with The Charlotte News. “How are we going to figure out a screening process? It should happen before a student even gets on the school bus. How do you do that with hundreds of students? Who is going to do it? I don’t know the answer to that.”
CVSD Director of Digital Learning & Communication Bonnie Birdsall said that the union’s recommendations are in line with the state’s and the school district’s progress toward a safe opening. “We are all working with those requirements as we develop plans for reopening,” she wrote in an email. “We are committed to protecting the health of our students and staff, we are seeking and including educator voice in our planning, we will provide access to protection, and we are definitely moving forward with a focus on equity.”
Tinney said that the issues to be addressed are of two categories: physical and instructional. He said that desks will have to be measured and placed in classrooms to ensure appropriate physical distance, school nurses should be hired full time in all schools, and distance-learning protocols need to be developed for students and educators who might be immunocompromised or otherwise unable to take the risk of physically attending school.
Public school systems face bureaucratic and timing hiccups under regular circumstances, and the fact that there are about six weeks left before school starts again means that within that time, the state and schools will have to create a plan, make physical changes to facilities, and give parents ample warning time to schedule childcare.
“Yes, we are well aware that it’s July,” Birdsall said. “We are well underway with refining and developing plans, based on the guidance from the VT AOE. We have a timeline to ensure that all details are addressed and we will communicate with our communities along the way.”
Birdsall said that school districts across the state are working with the AOE to make sure that education and schooling is consistent across the state. “Everyone is pulling together trying to do what is best for kids in an unprecedented situation,” she said.
“It requires a lot of preparation and planning,” Tinney said. “No parent willingly says, ‘Here, why don’t you go out and take this crazy risk today.’ Parents worry themselves sick…they need to understand what the practices will be to make sure their babies are safe. Every school should be a sanctuary for every student, and we have to take every precaution to make sure we do that.”
Neither Birdsall or Tinney would comment directly on whether or not there would be a work stoppage or delay in the start of the school year should a plan not be put in place in time, saying instead that all involved parties are working diligently to make sure that’s not an issue when the time comes.
“We can do this, but I’m skeptical that there’s enough time,” Tinney said.