Students will be able to attend school this fall in classrooms that look a lot less like their bedroom or kitchen table at home.
Gov. Phil Scott announced Wednesday that public K-12 schools will reopen this fall.
“We know more about this virus now and have the tools to help prevent the spread today that we didn’t have three months ago, which helps us prepare for this transition back to school,” Scott said in his thrice-weekly COVID-19 press conference.
Still, things won’t be the same as they were before mid-March, when schools — along with most public gatherings — shut down abruptly to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Expect daily temperature checks, contact tracing, rearranging of school classrooms and how gym is handled, the way lunches are served, and more.
“I could go on and on,” Lamoille South superintendent Tracy Wrend said Wednesday. “It’s important to be clear. The way that schools operate, while it may be very much in person, will be different.”
Dan French, the state education secretary, said his agency will issue guidance about school reopenings in coming days.
Back to normal
Scott and French said it’s important that students get back to normal classroom settings — for the kids; for their teachers who, on the fly, had to learn entirely new methods of instruction; and for their parents, who often had some sort of teaching role, too, and have had to stay home with their children.
Teachers in Vermont and around the country report that student learning and achievement, as well as social experience, have suffered during the pandemic. Many teachers say they have students who haven’t attended online classes in weeks.
“As much as coronavirus is a public health emergency, in many cases it has been an educational emergency,” French said. “Speaking on behalf of all the educators in the state, we’re anxious to get back to the work and very appreciative of parents and their flexibility in getting through this difficult time.”
Lamoille North superintendent Cat Gallagher echoed that.
“The information from families has been that remote learning has been really difficult,” Gallagher said, particularly for working parents.
Wednesday’s announcement was criticized by the union representing teachers. The Vermont chapter of the National Education Association issued a statement about the governor’s announcement, saying educators and parents “must have a lead role in hashing out the complex details required” for reopening schools.
“It is unfortunate that Gov. Phil Scott and Education Secretary Dan French chose to make this announcement before the real hard work of planning and preparation has been completed,” the union’s president, Nat Tinney, said. “We have one chance to get this right, and to get it right takes time.
“Again, there is no place where educators would rather be than in school, teaching and caring for students. But without concrete, health- and science-based protocols that must be followed by every school district, today’s announcement adds even more pressure to folks doing this critical planning.”
Wrend added that every scenario needs to “promote safety, health, hygiene and overall well-being” of students, staff and faculty.
Lamoille South has been trying to make sure the school year ends well, especially for seniors who missed out on an entire quarter-year of traditions, from prom to final seasons on their sports teams to normal graduation ceremonies.
“While our primary focus has been ending the school year well, we are prepared to move into intensive work to plan for next year, beginning next week,” Wrend said.
She said she and her staff are viewing plans for the fall “as a process rather than an event.” They are planning for a full range of scenarios, from full-on in-person learning to complete distance education like it’s been for the past three months.
Distance learning is likely to be forever a part of education, even when things go back to normal, Wrend said, as teachers have learned “a lot of really neat lessons” since March. The difference is, that was learning on the fly, without a whole lot of time to prepare. A summer of preparation would make things much more seamless and productive.
The same goes for Lamoille North.
“We are going to be planning specifically for a few iterations” of school resuming in the fall, Gallagher said. In-person learning, possibly with significant restrictions, is one of those iterations, as is a scenario where Lamoille North schools “move in and out of remote learning” during the school year as needed.
Moving forward, Gallagher plans to take in guidance from the Agency of Education while continuing to gather responses from the multiple surveys and questionnaires sent to staff, families and students in her district.
Whatever happens, Gallagher hopes that an entire summer to plan for different scenarios will lead to a better educational system and outcome for students in the fall.
The Lamoille North school board will next meet Monday, June 22, to continue discussing how learning will continue to evolve.
Lamoille South meets this Monday, June 15, and will likely talk about it, too.
Said Wrend, “We will be working hard to come up with clear communication, and are prepared to move into other phases as circumstances arise.”
VTDigger contributed to this report.