Every year the South Burlington Rotary Club gives each third-grade student at Orchard School a personal dictionary.

It’s become a sort of rite of passage, according to principal Mark Trifilio.

So, when Anne McKinney’s third-grade daughter saw all her friends marveling over their new dictionaries and asked why she didn’t get one, McKinney didn’t have an answer.

For at least five months the Orchard parent has emailed and called school officials, asking why her kids were being excluded from community activities and materials — access to leveled reading books, math manipulatives and virtual events. In response, she’s heard some heartfelt apologies and some rebuffs.

But mostly silence.

The major difference between McKinney’s third grader and her classmates? She attends the district’s virtual learning option.

Back to school

Last August, when South Burlington superintendent David Young announced a one-week deadline to choose a learning option — a few days per week in-person or entirely remote learning via Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative, or VTVLC — McKinney’s family chose virtual learning.

Her son has asthma and often uses a nebulizer if he gets sick.

“He always gets a flu shot and he always gets the flu,” McKinney said. “We weren’t willing to risk his health this year.”

After McKinney said school officials denied her access to leveled reading books and to DreamBox — an online math tool for practicing numeral literacy which the district subscribes to — she tried to set up a Zoom meeting with Shelley Matthias, the K-5 district coordinator for virtual learners.

But she declined.

Matthias responded to a request for comment but did not agree to comment, citing she was “not sure what the district’s protocol is” on speaking with the press. She did not respond to a follow-up request.

“I didn’t want to make a huge deal about it at first,” McKinney recalled. She relayed her struggles to some Orchard teachers and learning coaches who all seemed eager to help. Her son’s virtual cooperative teacher mailed him a coloring book and offered to drive over to their house to drop off enrichment activities.

“We’re all working quadruple-time this year, but that’s what you do for your students,” McKinney said.

Her neighbor, a South Burlington Rotarian, was flummoxed why her third grader wasn’t allotted a dictionary, saying: “I’m going to get you a dictionary if I have to write it myself!”

Enrollment confusion

Since September, McKinney has heard a variety of reasons why her kids don’t have access to the same materials or events as in-person learners.

Trifilio expressed his empathy for the students’ lack of access and a desire to help, but initially told McKinney that the miscommunication was because fully virtual students are not enrolled in the South Burlington school district.

“I advocated for them: ‘Sure why not let them use DreamBox’,” Trifilio said. “Because they’re not enrolled in the district, we could not get them onto DreamBox. I could not find any solution.”

However, he later walked back this statement when the superintendent confirmed that virtual students are enrolled in the district.

In an email follow-up, Trifilio granted that he is not sure why Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative students do not have access to the online tool but hopes to find clarification soon.

Matthias in a Sept. 23 email explained that DreamBox subscriptions with schools are linked to faculty — the school has placeholders for each child’s enrollment for when they return, but “cannot assign an additional teacher within your neighborhood school to your student as it would create a duplicate enrollment.”

Instead, she noted that parents can buy the online math tool themselves.

After McKinney pushed back, Matthias said that it was not within her job description to coordinate enrichment or cocurricular activities for virtual students; McKinney’s kids always have the option to return to in-person learning, she said.

According to school officials, out of 25 Orchard students who began the year virtually, eight have returned to in-person learning.

Fellow parent Garrath Higgins also chose the virtual option, she and her husband making sacrifices to manage their own full-time work schedules and childcare.

“My husband and I are splitting shifts so one of us is always home with [our son] and we both still work full-time,” Higgins said. “We’re making a lot of sacrifices to make sure he has what he needs.”

Higgins’ family purchased enrichment activities and materials throughout the year, since, she said, “virtual learning in South Burlington is being marginalized.”

She added, “But we also pay our taxes, and this is a public education system. This is not sustainable for our family but we’re doing what we have to do right now.”

Her family chose the virtual option out of an abundance of caution, but she said she had no reason to believe access to supplies would be denied.

In an Oct. 16 email to Higgins, Matthias said students’ places in their neighborhood schools are reserved, “assuring them a place when they return to school which would not ordinarily happen when a student elects to go to an alternative school. It also ensures that the district is reimbursed by the state for the students that elect to go to VTVLC through SBSD.”

However, Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative is not an alternative school.

In fact, “VTVLC is not a school,” said Jeff Renard, director/principal of the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative. Rather, its role is as a facilitator and supporter.

According to Young, students enrolled at the cooperative have access to enrichment and extracurricular materials such as district newsletters, library books, guidance counselors, mental health support, clubs and sports — which happen “mostly at the high school and middle school,” he said. While not many clubs or sports are available at the district’s elementary schools, Young said staff are looking into what more they can provide.

Leveled reading books, math enrichment materials, rite-of-passage dictionaries and virtual events aren’t on that list.

While Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative students are allowed to check out library books, it is unclear if they have access to leveled reading books, designed specifically for early literacy. Trifilio explained that leveled reading books are part of a reading program, and therefore inaccessible since the cooperative does not have the same curriculum.

Ultimately, he said he can’t wait to have the virtual families back to school in person: “We don’t want them to feel isolated, we don’t want them to feel that way. We want to do whatever we can do to support them.”

The last straw

Every week, district families receive an e-newsletter from Young, often highlighting events and news around the district, adding COVID-19 updates and giving a peek into what’s on the horizon.

When officials announced “I Love School” spirit week in February, with in-person and virtual events, including an author talk and a puppet show about anxiety, McKinney jumped at the opportunity to bridge the virtual gap.

Her request for links to the online events was met with silence, then apologies for the delay, then a clarification from Matthias: “The email the librarian sent Sunday afternoon contained the schedule for the six Orchard grades and the Zoom link they are to use. There was no link or time slot for VTVLC families,” she wrote in an email Feb. 15.

“That was kind of the last straw for me,” McKinney said. “Everything’s hard this year, I understand, but damaging relationships with families and children is only going to make it harder.”

On Feb. 17, McKinney attended the school board meeting and asked officials face-to-face, “Why is Orchard School denying fully remote students access to these events, as well as educational materials and other programs provided to in-person learners?”

Higgins joined her, noting that they spoke for many other parents of remote students who felt similarly ostracized but were uncomfortable speaking up.

Young explained that staff didn’t want to overload students with additional school community events that might bring undue stress. Some virtual student schedules are busier than others, he said, but “our intent has never been to exclude.”

McKinney’s kids complete about one hour of live class and an hour of academic work, leaving the rest of the day wide open. Her kids haven’t struggled with online learning, McKinney emphasized; she’s only asking for enrichment activities. With one hour, give or take, of synchronous work per day, their schedules aren’t exactly packed, she countered.

At the meeting, Young said he planned to “circle back with administrators” to get more information, and later added that he plans to release a list of materials and services accessible to virtual students.

The board meeting was the first time McKinney heard directly from Young though she’d reached out to him repeatedly since last fall. He’s since followed up with her.

“First of all, we would love to give all our kids everything,” said Young in an interview a week after the board meeting. But the district does not have enough resources, like math manipulatives, for every student, he said.

Young explained that the conflict for virtual cooperative students is a “little bit of both” an administrative hold-up and based on not wanting to overburden student schedules.

It’s a “logistical thing, not a personal thing,” he said. “We only have so many resources we can give out.”

He also reaffirmed that virtual students are part of the South Burlington school district and are not in an alternative school, though he noted the word “enrollment” is tricky. South Burlington students in the online program “live in our district, they go to our school, they’re under our umbrella,” Young said.

The school district has never had a fully remote learning pod of students before, explained David, and “we don’t have it all figured out.” He’s still asking himself how he can provide more to students without overloading them.

“I want to say I’m sorry, this is not about exclusion ... The last thing we want is to make families feel excluded. I take those concerns to heart,” Young said. “I promise we’ll continue to work at this.”

At the February school board meeting, chair Bridget Burkhardt said she would “encourage” school officials to trust parents with assessing their children’s schedules, as opposed to making choices for them.

“Parents have a good sense of where their kids are,” she said.

What’s next?

According to McKinney and Higgins, the resource list had not graced the inboxes by press time, although virtual students were invited to the broadcast of the Black Lives Matter flag raising on March 12. Higgins said her son, watching from a screen at home, was excited to hear one of his classmates speak and hear his music teacher sing. McKinney called it a “great first step.”

Her kids now have access to some leveled reading books now, after the Orchard librarian and a kindergarten teacher pulled some together and offered to let McKinney borrow them. They also can access DreamBox — after she purchased a 12-month subscription, totaling nearly $150.

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