A Complex Equation: Solving the puzzle of reopening schools Part 1 of a series on reopening schools in the Time of Covid-19

This is Part  1 in a series on the issues around reopening schools closed by the pandemic in the fall.

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The countdown clock is ticking. In less than three months the 2020/21 school year begins. And while Agency of Education Secretary Dan French is working with Vermont’s Health Department and the associations of various professions (superintendents, principals, teachers, etc.) on putting together guidance for the fall, it will be largely up to the districts and supervisory unions to chart their own courses, according to French.

And once again, the clock is ticking.

Education Secretary Dan French announcing the goal of returning to in-person instruction in the fall at a June 10 press conference

At a May 27 press conference, French said that it is a “major undertaking” with a lot of complicated issues and that the goal is to have in-person instruction safely in the fall.  French reiterated that goal in his announcement on June 10. To do this, he said, his agency would be putting out preliminary information so teachers and administrators “can take advantage of the ‘in-service’ days at the end of the school year to begin making their plans. “Then after July 4, we’ll ask them to finalize their approach,” said French.

The last time K-12 classes in Vermont met in person was March 17 after Gov. Phil Scott closed them in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The question now is whether there is enough time for the schools to work through all of the complicated issues French alluded to.

Issues and concerns

The most important variable in the decision-making is what the state of the Covid-19 pandemic will be as children get ready to return to school in late August.

At this point, expecting a working vaccine that still has yet to be developed and mass-produced by the fall is wildly optimistic. So what’s left is either that the pandemic will be sufficiently under control to allow for children to return to school or it won’t. And even if the pandemic is under control, there are predictions that it could come back in a second or third wave.

Green Mountain math teacher Julie Parah holds a class online. Photo provided

In terms of how much leeway schools will get to interpret the guidance, French told The Telegraph in early June that the AOE will insist on schools following the public health guidelines but would have flexibility in how they plan and manage their own reopenings.

So teachers and administrators will need to plan for in-person instruction, remote instruction and some combination of both to be covered whether the pandemic improves or worsens.

Situations in which children will attend school are expected to include social distancing, face-covering, temperature checks and other ways to contain the virus. And the maintenance of school campuses will require greater attention to details like disinfection.

There are a host of issues and concerns. Next week we will look at some of the possibilities for how education could be conducted, taking these into consideration with an uncertain public health situation. 

The bulleted items are some of the issues and questions brought up by local administrators, teachers, special educators, paraeducators, school board members and parents during recent interviews. These are arranged by the “domains” in the AOE’s planning template, which has yet to be issued.

Safe and Healthy Environments

  • How will the schools be equipped and outfitted to ensure the safety of students and staff? Will there be cleaning protocols with sufficient materials that are safe to use around children? Will there be enough personal protective equipment and will children use them correctly and consistently especially in the heat of a September classroom?
  • How will health screening and isolation of students who are symptomatic be handled?

Leadership, Policy and Funding

  • Planning for the 2021/22 school year will likely be as important or more important to support students and keep them moving ahead this includes budgeting.

Maintaining Operations

  • If physical distancing (6 feet between) students is in effect, how will everyone fit into school?
  • If there is in-person instruction, how will transportation be handled?
  • How will students stay at safe distances from one another while entering and exiting school and moving from class to class?
  • What training and professional development will be readied to help teachers and staff deal with many of the issues?
  • If in-person learning means keeping distance and not sharing materials, how much more materials will be needed and what’s the budget impact? And how does the school preserve the teamwork experience?
  • How will the schools handle the effects on classroom practices of health guidelines that change during the school year?
  • How will multiple districts and supervisory unions align their work especially where they overlap in areas like tech education.

Continuity of Learning

  • What happens to students who don’t have the home structures – including broadband — to keep up? What can be done to keep them from falling behind?
  • Between the pandemic and summer vacation, learning loss is estimated to be high. How will this be handled? Will there be remediation or acceleration or some other way to make up for the loss? 
  • If Personalized Learning Plans, Flexible Pathways and Proficiency Based Education can be used in managing many of the issues, have the faculty and staff  developed sufficient capability with these tools to use them effectively?
  • Some parents will not be comfortable sending their children back to school. If those parents withdraw, can they still expect a free, appropriate public education or do they become home schoolers?
  • How will special needs students be educated under  the various public health scenarios?

Social and Emotional Health

  • How do we deal with the important work of socializing kids when they may have to be apart in most scenarios?
  • What will pandemic trauma look like, how will it be handled, how will further disruptions (like an outbreak and re-closure) impact students and what can be done to minimize it?
  • Sports and extra-curriculars can have a motivating effect on some students. How can these be accommodated or how can that motivation be replaced with something else?

As we begin looking at these questions in detail keep in mind that this is a fluid situation which is likely to change. If you have questions about reopening the schools email them to scunningham@chestertelegraph.org.

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  1. Michelle says:

    What will kindergartens look like? It’s all about sharing, taking turns and social skills?! Will toys be eliminated? Recess? The CDC recommendations mentioned that kids must bring lunch from home. How is the free reduced lunch program going to work?