UPDATE: On Tuesday, July 28, Gov. Phil Scott pushed back the first day of school until Sept. 8.
Parents strongly support the Lamoille North school district’s plan to reopen schools in late August for in-person — and careful — learning.
Residents and school staff members in Belvidere, Cambridge, Eden, Hyde Park, Johnson and Waterville are working together on plans to reopen five elementary schools, Lamoille Union Middle and High School, and the Green Mountain Technology and Career Center. However, monitoring, sharp limitations on movement, and constant cleansing will change the way that schools operate.
A key step toward reopening has been asking parents what they want to happen.
The answer: In a survey, almost 75 percent of parents want their children to return to some form of in-person, in-school learning. But only 45 percent favor regular, traditional school days; the rest prefer something more limited, or would not send their kids to school for full-day sessions with a full school.
And that’s the plan, said Lamoille North Superintendent Cat Gallagher. The vast majority of Lamoille North students will be back in school with some type of face-to-face learning with their teachers.
Considering the risks posed by the COVID-19 virus, some families may not want their children to return to school yet, and requests to continue remote learning will be considered.
Vermont is still doing well in containing COVID-19, but cases are spiking around the country and Lamoille North is making contingency plans in case there’s an outbreak in Vermont. Those options include a combination of remote and in-person learning, or a complete return to remote learning — the method adopted in a hurry when the pandemic struck. Refinements should make remote learning more effective now.
Back to school
When schools open in late August, the vast majority of Lamoille North students will be in classrooms for at least portions of the week.
However, freedom of movement will be sharply curtailed.
Gallagher said students of all ages will be assigned to a specific cohort — students who will stay together throughout the day to minimize mingling with other students. The idea is that, if there’s a virus case, exposure will be limited to that cohort.
Students in each cohort will stay in the same classroom for much of the day as teachers and other staff cycle through the rooms.
While at school, students will be required to wear a mask unless they have an approved medical reason not to, are eating, or are outside participating in physical education or recess.
“They won’t be stuck in classrooms all day,” Gallagher said. Recess and physical education will be outside as long as that’s an option, but there will be no indoor physical activity for the time being — too much huffing and puffing, and droplets are a primary way that the virus spreads.
Each cohort of students will also get to stretch their legs in other ways throughout the day.
Gallagher said school officials will stick to state-recommended guidelines for social distancing, and added that the American Association of Pediatrics has now said that social distancing of between 3 and 6 feet is acceptable in a school, and likely as effective as the 6-foot standard that’s been widely used.
Keeping children somewhat separated is important, she said, but “the most important pieces are hand-washing and masks.”
All students will be screened before they encounter other students each day, according to Flo Kelley, head of the health office at Lamoille Union. She has been named the COVID-19 coordinator for the entire supervisory union.
Children who ride the bus will be screened by an adult — not the driver, but a new job called bus monitor — before boarding the bus. Students will have to wear masks on the bus and will have assigned seating.
Just how many students will be allowed on each bus hasn’t been decided yet, but social distancing will be observed as much as possible.
Like their counterparts on the bus, students who are dropped off or walk to school will be screened before entering the building. The two groups of students will enter their schools via different entrances, Kelley said, and the screenings will include temperature checks and a series of questions.
Heavy emphasis will be placed on keeping students isolated in their cohort and home classroom for most of the day.
“We’re limiting transitioning of students as much as possible,” Kelley said, and the use of common areas is being discouraged. Even when some common areas, like the cafeteria, have to be used, only small groups of students will be in them at one time.
“Everyone going to the cafeteria, that’s not going to happen,” Kelley said.
Lamoille North will also ramp up its cleaning schedule. Facilities director Dylan Laflam put together new cleaning guidelines back in February, when the pandemic was first reaching the United States, and those guidelines are now being updated with the most up-to-date information about how to fight the spread of COVID-19.
Bathrooms will be disinfected hourly, Laflam said, with particular attention paid to “high-touch” areas.
All common areas, including hallways, will be cleaned anytime students are moving from one room to another.
Laflam expects common spaces to be cleaned at least six or seven times every day. Commonly used items such as tables and chairs used to be disinfected once a week, he said, but now that will happen at least once a day.
The schools are also changing how often they cycle in fresh, clean air from outside. Typically, to save money and energy, school buildings cycle out old air and bring in fresh air a few times a day. Those savings aren’t a priority now, though, and “all indoor air will be cycled out 12 times” per 24 hours, Laflam said.
The district is also developing a disinfection plan if any students or staff members are found to have COVID-19 while on campus, and the school will have isolation rooms for them.
All that extra cleaning will require extra hands, Laflam said. Right now he has 30 employees, including himself. This school year, everyone, Laflam included, will be on cleaning duty throughout the week. Even so, he estimates he needs 16 more staff members to cover the shifts he has laid out and ensure the schools are sanitized according to the guidelines.
“We’re going to be fully sanitizing these buildings a couple times a day,” he said. “We have the plans and procedures in place; now we need the bodies to make it happen.”
What people want
The survey sent to parents and guardians earlier this summer drew 814 responses from the parents of over 1,000 students from pre-kindergarten to grade 12.
One question explicitly asked parents if they preferred to have their children continue to learn remotely, even if schools reopen in late August. A total of 26.9 percent of parents said they preferred to have their children continue to learn remotely, while 73.1 percent said they did not prefer that option.
Parents were also asked how they feel about all students and staff returning to school at the same time, five days a week, for the full traditional school day. That was supported by just under 45 percent, but 34 percent said they weren’t sure they felt comfortable with that option and over 21 percent said they wouldn’t send their children to school in that scenario.
There was more support for a plan that would have only about half of the student body of each school on campus at any one time. A total of 55.5 percent of parents said they would be likely to send their kids back to school under that plan, just under 27 percent said they were undecided, and 17.6 percent said they wouldn’t send their students to school in that scenario.
The survey also asks parents about two specific plans that would stagger when students are in the school building.
Schedule 1 would break the day into morning and afternoon sections, with half the student body attending school in each section.
Schedule 2 would have alternating days of school for each half of the student body.
Alternating days drew support from nearly 52 percent of parents, with only 16 percent opposed.
Only 31 percent of parents supported morning and afternoon schedules; 36 percent weren’t sure if they would send their children to school with that schedule and 33 percent were against the idea.
The details of how and when students will be back on campus each week are still up in the air, but the morning/afternoon setup has now been ruled it out.
“Not enough people wanted it,” Gallagher said.
It’s also possible that other options will be considered.
Lamoille North wants as many students as possible to attend school on campus, but Gallagher said some families have good reasons for avoiding in-person learning.
Under state guidance about school reopenings, each district has the option to offer remote learning. Gallagher said Lamoille North plans to do so, “if we can manage it with the resources we have.”
Resources are limited, though, and students who want to learn remotely will need approval. Priority will be given to students who are medically vulnerable, or who live with someone who is medically vulnerable.
“There are other reasons not to attend,” Gallagher said, but most of those will be considered only after medical exemptions are granted and if the schools have the capacity to do so.
“We’re not required to provide remote instruction,” Gallagher reiterated. “We can offer it, and it is our intention to provide it for those who most need it.”
Remote learning will not be offered at the Green Mountain Technical and Career Center. Its programs are already more isolated than typical school environments, so students will be able to keep to their specific groups more easily. And, with its emphasis on hands-on learning, “the nature of the tech center means remote learning really doesn’t work,” Gallagher said.
Green Mountain Tech will switch back to remote learning only if there is an emergency school closure, as occurred in March.
Specific plans for each school building across Lamoille North are still being developed, and in the next few weeks principals will meet with their own staffs, residents and reopening teams to firm up the plans. Each reopening plan is subject to approval by the school board and a supervisory-union-wide leadership team.
Gallagher been pleased with the amount of community involvement in the reopening process.
“Parents are participating; they’ve been great,” she said, and have helped come up with angles and questions to look into.