Most students in Morristown, Stowe and Elmore will attend classes in person most of the time when school starts Sept. 8.
The Lamoille South school board voted unanimously Monday night to adopt a hybrid model that would put students in class four days a week, with Wednesdays reserved for remote learning.
Everyone, however — students, principals, teachers, support staff, parents — will start school under a cloud of uncertainty, prepared to go back to remote learning at a moment’s notice, should the coronavirus rear its ugly head in any one of the campuses.
Superintendent Tracy Wrend said “we need to bring kids back to school if we can,” because they need routine, safe spaces, food and support for learning. She said “we are social animals,” and the social effects of the pandemic will affect the mental and physical health of everyone in the school community.
“They are traumatic and will impact all of our well-being for some time,” Wrend said. “Even one case of COVID-19 in our education community feels like it would be too much for us to bear.”
Val Sullivan, the district’s curriculum coordinator, said the programming got narrowed when the pandemic hit, and there was an “almost overnight pivot for teachers” into online instruction.
A four-day plan gives teachers the time they need to adjust — constantly adjust — to basically learning how to teach along two tracks, “to take on two pedagogical models,” she said. There will be a necessary limit to course offerings, both remote and on-campus.
The school day also might end at 1:30 p.m., more than an hour earlier than usual, so teachers can get together and discuss what is and isn’t working.
There will be a difference in how people move about the schools, depending on the grade level. Elementary-aged kids, for instance, will stay within their selected “pods,” and their teachers will rotate in and out of classrooms. Older students will travel from class to class, but within their groups, with the faculty and staff keeping a close eye on the number of “cohort transitions,” and adjust as things get safer, or less safe.
There are tentative plans to offer as much outdoor learning as possible, so students can space themselves out and go mask free for a spell.
Even under the hybrid model, a fully online option is available for students who ought not be in school, mainly for health-related reasons with them or their families. Those studies will be offered by
the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative, which has “risen up to the challenge” of coming up with a fully online K-12 learning model, according to Sullivan.
One sticking point with the learning cooperative: once you commit, you do so for a semester; there’s no floating in and out of virtual learning and in-person.
Under a remote learning model — minus the presence of the virus in school — some students would be on campus anyway. Those students would be identified based on whether their academic, social or safety needs indicate they need on-campus support.
Even though the district officials embraced the hybrid model over the fully remote option, the learn-at-home route could be the only option, if a case of COVID shows up in the school.
Health and safety team
There is bound to be a lot of anxiety at suddenly being all together again, even with all the new safety measures in place. For instance, how do you get young kids to keep their masks on, and not punish them for simply being a kid and taking the thing off, or dropping it in the dirt during recess?
Wrend said now is a good time for parents to practice with their children, and find a mask they find comfortable wearing.
With the older students, non-compliance could be borne of the natural rebellious streak that adolescents go through as they develop. Middle level students might be enthusiastic about an art class that allows them to express their individuality via their masks, but some might not.
And then there’s the whole idea of trust. How do you know if a student went out of state with the family for the weekend, or is swapping spit behind the gym?
“If you don’t think high school kids are getting together now, you’re crazy,” Stowe board member Norm Williams said, adding he’d much rather them be in in school than engaging in “some of the activities they are getting into now.”
Wrend said it comes down to being part of a team, and making sure that team-first attitude becomes almost like a mantra.
“The school year is a team sport and everybody who is a member of our community has something to contribute to making it a successful year,” Wrend said. She had a message for parents: “You are now part of our health and safety team.”
Support amid complaints
There has been some grumbling about why it took so long for Lamoille South to come up with a plan, when its neighboring districts, Lamoille North and Harwood, were further ahead in their plans.
Wrend dismissed any suggestions that the process was less than thorough.
“Many hearts and minds” were involved, she said, noting that a team of roughly 20 professionals has worked “every single day” since mid-June on coming up with a plan.
Still, the devil is in the details — things like ventilation systems and personal protective equipment — and Wrend entreated the school board to let the professionals figure that out, both in the next five weeks and as things come up during the school year.
The board, in throwing its support behind the administration, advocated a notable lack of micromanaging — this is, after all, a body that, in May, overruled the administration in demanding more say in how grades would be given out in the pandemic.
Only board member Tiffany Donza of Stowe offered up resistance to letting the administration do the driving, especially regarding the number of days on campus. Even Morristown board member Dick Shanley, who, in May, complained that it was tough to know whether the board or the superintendent was in charge, supported giving the professionals the latitude they need.
“(Going) hybrid or remote is our choice. Everything else is up to the staff and faculty,” Shanley said.
Best for whom?
What’s best for students might not be best for teachers. Ian Shea, head of the local teachers’ association, offered survey results indicating that about 62 percent of them think the hybrid route is the way to go, and a quarter of them think the remote way is best. Ask them about what’s best for educators and their families, though, and the results flip flop — 56 percent favor remote learning and 20 percent favor a hybrid.
Shea said the hybrid model is especially preferred for elementary school children, with 83 percent favoring it for the youngsters. It’s a more even split with the middle and high school students, who have more years of experience, and can more easily navigate remote learning, and maybe even thrive in that environment.
“Different models might be better suited for different age levels or different developmental levels,” Shea said. He added, “another tough reality we have to face” is things just won’t be as good as normal, no matter which direction school, and the pandemic, go.