South Burlington schools look a little different this year.
Students will show up on their first day with new backpacks, sneakers – and masks.
Oh, and they’ll have camping chairs.
At the high school, most classroom furniture will be removed, and students will be equipped with the folding chairs.
Superintendent David Young said the thinking behind the chairs is to limit students’ exposure to shared surfaces.
Students will have their own chair to bring from class to class, “cutting down the contagion situation,” Young said.
The district bought 1,000 portable chairs for a total of $14,997, according to Gary Marckres, the district’s Director of Operations and Financial Management.
The chairs are supposed to encourage outdoor learning. To help with that, the school has leased six event-sized tents ranging from 1,300-2,400 square feet. All of the tents have roll down sides, Marckres said.
Those carry a heftier $42,452.50 price tag.
Young said the district believes these expenses will be reimbursed under the Coronavirus Relief Fund.
Joe Patrissi, a member of the community school budget committee and active “vote no” outcrier, thinks the school needs to spend money on safety measures as students return.
“I totally support the school using money to buy whatever they need to buy to make it safer for the children and the teachers. If that means buying tents and portable chairs, I leave those decisions to the school,” he said. “I’m totally comfortable with that.”
But – he’s still got some criticisms about this year’s budget process.
“It’s just this lack of transparency and the numbers keep changing and it keeps moving around. The problem for us voters, like myself, is that we really need to understand the dynamics of the budget and see what the commitment is before we vote on it so we can be good with it, and the school board seems to have a hard time with transparency,” he said.
Mark Lafayette commented on a social media post about the chairs, saying, “If you think of the school year I think you’re not going to find many weeks with weather that will allow outside classes… unless the kids will be sitting outside when it’s 40 degrees.”
‘Hearty’ kids and safe havens
Tara Douglas thought her daughter, a ninth-grade student at South Burlington High School, would choose to learn 100% remotely this fall.
Now, she’s not sure.
“I think she is just yearning for some normality but is also worried about the virus. I told her to take some time to really think about it,” Douglas said.
The two talked about the reality of having to wear a mask all day – especially with the girl’s glasses.
Ultimately Douglass said as long as cases stay low, she feels alright having her daughter attend in-person classes twice weekly.
Scott Goodwin has three kids who will be heading back to Rick Marcotte Central School and the Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School.
“I don’t know how effective the chair thing at the high school will be, but I know that there’s concerns about sanitizing so it’s good for things like that,” he said. “I think the tents are a good idea. I think our climate isn’t always the most conducive for outdoor learning, but my kids are pretty hearty.”
Goodwin is able to work from home so childcare is not an issue for his family. But, he does wonder about what remote learning will look like and hopes his kids will have a robust curriculum and ample support, since his job won’t allow him a lot of time to work with them.
Monica Ostby’s daughter is a rising freshman. She too has chosen the hybrid learning model.
Ostby said she’s grateful her daughter is in high school and is an independent, mature person. She can’t imagine how it the new school model would be for a young family.
When her family first heard that students would be toting their own chairs around they pictured clunky metal folding chairs. They were relieved to hear that the chairs would be the cloth, camping type. She’s OK with the district taking the steps it believes will keep students safe.
“I’d rather them not take a risk with my child’s life. I’m glad that they’re doing the best they can with a situation with many unknowns,” Ostby said.
“I just feel grateful that I’m not in the decision-making role at this time. I’m going to give decision makers and the people that are, themselves, going to be in the building every damn day, that are taking care of not only our students’ health but have to be mindful of our teachers’ health, I’m going to give them a little bit of space on the kind of decisions that they make,” she continued.
Ostby hopes the district also has plans in place for those students who find their safe haven within the halls of its schools.
The South Burlington School District is looking to hire 13 substitute teachers to serve as COVID-19 health screeners, classroom subs, lunch chaperones for teachers and to help with daily cleaning tasks, Young said.
These workers will earn $125 per day, which the district anticipates will qualify for Coronavirus Relief Fund reimbursement, Marckres said.
“We’re likely going to need more and more subs to cover classrooms because of the increased incidences of COVID. Not just for us, but everywhere,” Young said.
The district is working with teachers who cannot come into the building because of health risks. They may be asked to teach students who have chosen the fully remote learning model.
Meanwhile, teachers’ contracts are unsettled.
Young said he hopes they will be resolved before the start of the school year, but if not, teachers will be paid at last year’s rate, with a state-mandated step increase.
Should teachers go on strike, Young said the district has not historically brought in substitutes to teach their courses.
“It would be a huge bill, again I would not likely be recommending that,” he said.
Scary start to the year
Parent Kimberly Chittenden said starting in a pandemic is scary, but “The schools are doing a tremendous job making sure that the kids come first and that the kids are safe.”
Her kids did well during the remote period last spring but missed seeing their peers.
“As much as remote learning is great, and the teachers did an awesome job, and they had Zoom meetings, and they had opportunities for the kids to connect it’s not the same as in-person so I think the school district is doing the best that they can to try to support the kids,” she said.