A Complex Equation: Schools, Tech Center prepare for return of students Administrators work to minimize in-person risk but prep for remote learning if needed

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2020 Telegraph Publishing, LLC

This is the third in a series of articles on what schools will have to plan for when they open in the fall. To read Part 1 click here. To read Part 2 click here.

No matter what anyone says about what will happen when schools reopen in the fall, everything is subject to changes in the Covid-19 public health situation. That situation is fluid and could change in ways that would likely affect how education could be delivered.

As it stands today, the K-12 schools are going to open for in-person instruction in late August under  Step 2 which was laid out in the Agency of Education’s Strong and Healthy Start guidance. It is the first step back after remote learning and mandates strict use of face coverings, social distancing and a host of other measures to slow the spread of coronavirus.

If the public health outlook continues to improve, schools may move toward looser restrictions under Step 3, but if the outlook worsens, schools may have to return to remote learning or a combination of both.

Minimizing risk for in-person learning

Incoming Superintendent Lauren Fierman at the Green Mountain High graduation on June, 19 when she was principal of that school. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Lauren Fierman, who took over as superintendent of Two Rivers Supervisory Union on July 1,  is  hewing close to the AOE  and Health Department guidance while recognizing that not all schools have the same layout and conditions.

“People are trying to cover every possible contingency – but you can’t,” said Fierman in an interview just days before she formally became superintendent. “It is not possible to make everything absolutely safe, but it is possible to minimize risk and we are going to do everything we can to minimize risk to our students and to our staff. But it is not a guarantee that if we do all of those things (in the AOE’s guidance) that no one will become ill. Before we ever heard the word Covid, students were not safe from getting strep throat or a flu virus or anything else. They were probably much less safe than they will be when we start school up again.”

While much has been written and speculated about how schools will work in the fall – including staggering schedules, filling in with distance learning and other ideas, Fierman says that most of the five schools in the SU have sufficient classroom space for everyone to practice appropriate distancing.

The exception is Chester-Andover Elementary.  “There’s not enough room for 240 kids to be in classrooms in that building with distancing,” says Fierman. But the AOE guidance mandates closing large gathering spaces (gyms, auditoriums, cafeterias, libraries, etc.) for their normal use while allowing them to be used as  classroom space with adequate distancing. Fierman said that CAES Principal Katherine Fogg is looking at using these spaces to get all of the students into the building everyday.

In the elementary schools it’s expected that students will arrive and, after a health check, go to their classrooms where they will stay for most or all of their day, with various teachers cycling through to teach specific subjects. The state guidance envisions students receiving their lunches at their desks. Still to be worked out: Giving teachers the planning period and duty-free lunch they have in their contracts while their classrooms remain full of students.

While the administration will also try to minimize movement within the high school, it will be more difficult.  “You can’t do science experiments without science labs. If you are doing woodshop, you need to go there and we can’t bring the wheel to you so you can throw pottery,” says Fierman, “We can work on schedules so students move around less and we can work on routes to minimize contact, but they will still have to move around.”

Scott Farr, superintendent of the River Valley Technical Center, is planning how his faculty will work with the same challenges in providing hands-on education within the state guidelines. “We are feeling pretty good about the (public health) position Vermont is in,” says Farr, recognizing that could change and that he has to coordinate among the four school districts who send students to his Springfield facility.

Sitting it out in September?

Not everyone is certain that they want to return to a school building. A recent TRSU survey of school families found a number of parents who are nervous about sending children to school unless there are stringent protections including masks, distancing, cleaning and disinfecting. Interestingly, there were also those who said they would not send their children if they were required to wear masks.

The state has to decide whether or not to give waivers for remote learning to accommodate those who may have risk factors for returning to school. Photo by Julia M. Cameron from Pexels

Some parents have said they would home-school their children, which could mean the loss of the state funding that would accompany those students to the school. But as August approaches, those parents may find that’s more difficult than they assumed. Vermont is classified as a “high regulation” state by the Home School Legal Defense Association.  New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Rhode Island are also considered high regulation.

Fierman says she believes that the majority of parents have concerns but think that things will work out.

By the same token, there are also teachers who have health issues – either themselves or in their families – who are also concerned about returning to a school building and others who have said they will not come to work unless students are wearing face coverings.

Fierman says that she and a number of superintendents believe that “remote academies” could be put together so those teachers who feel they can’t come into school can instruct students whose parents are keeping them home. There is a hitch in that plan. During the school shutdown, teachers were allowed to teach remotely because they were given a waiver of required distance learning credentials. But that waiver expired at the end of the school year.

To allow teachers who are not certified to teach remotely this fall, some legislative hurdles will need to be cleared. During Gov. Phil Scott’s Tuesday, July 7 press conference, AOE Secretary Dan French said that the agency is looking at issues around remote learning and expects to issue guidance for schools by the end of the month. Asked if he supported the waiver to allow “remote academies,” French said he does not have an opinion on it.

Preparing for distance learning just in case

RVTC Superintendent Scott Farr is preparing for in person and remote learning.

In addition to planning for face-to-face teaching, educators must also prepare for the possibility that a second wave of the virus later this year could close schools and send students and teachers back to the internet.

Fierman says that in March, teachers who had minimal if any preparation as online teachers were suddenly thrust into that role. “But through the spring there was a significant amount of discussion about what works and what doesn’t and they were able to do some research and share what they learned,” she says.

While there has been a lot of work done around online secondary education, much less has been done in the elementary grades, according to Fierman, noting that the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative has shared good resources and materials developed in Florida for elementary schools.

RVTC is also preparing for that contingency as a host for VVLC. “We are looking for ways to be as useful as we can for students who sign up for a hands-on learning experience,” says Farr, adding that this past spring his staff tried to line up ways for students to work online toward industry-recognized certifications and college courses.

“We had teachers sending kits home for students to work with and our Audio Visual program sent equipment home for students to work with and then upload the results as a demonstration of what they could do.” Farr says that professional development for teachers on how to teach better online is the difference between emergency online instruction and being prepared.

With all the planning, there are still problems to be solved, opportunities to be recognized and, of course, costs for which to budget. In the final installment of A Complex Equation, we will look at these.

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