Going back to school will not be the same this year. This hour: we dive into how primary and secondary schools in Vermont may look different come this fall. We check in with some decision makers at the state and district level to see what approaches schools are taking, whether it be in-person, remote, or a hybrid of the two — and we get you answers about what this means for parents, teachers and kids.
Our guests are:
- Dan French, Vermont Agency of Education secretary
- Elaine Pinckney, Champlain Valley School District superintendent
- Beverly Davis, Orleans Central Supervisory Union superintendent
- Chris Guros, special educator at Main Street Middle School
- Brooke Olsen-Farrell, Slate Valley Unified School District superintendent
Broadcast live on Monday, July 27, 2020 at noon. Rebroadcast at 7 p.m.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Keep an eye out on VPR's website for more conversations from this show, later this week, or listen to the full episode above.
Jane Lindholm: In early July, Vermont's agency of education released a 25-page document intended to guide schools in figuring out plans for the start of the new school year. While the Agency of Education said returning to in-person learning should be a priority, exactly how to do that and in what capacity was left up to individual districts.
Secretary French, can you explain, first of all, why the Agency of Education didn't come up with a statewide plan for the reopening of schools in the fall?
Secretary Dan French: In terms of a comprehensive plan, I didn’t think it was feasible. Like so many of the other ways we've approached this emergency, we wanted to put emphasis on the public health information. So to the extent the state published a statewide plan, we did, in terms of the health guidance. And I think like in many states, we tried to strike that compromise between focusing our guidance on the health information while also having it be informed to a certain extent about the practical ways in which Vermont schools are configured.
As you know, we have a very diverse landscape in terms of our educational delivery system. So taken together, our guidance I think on the one hand provides very consistent and state level directive on health precautions that must be implemented for in-person instruction. But on the other hand, it gives districts some flexibility to implement the instruction because we think that flexibility will be necessary. For instance, not all our schools have sufficient computers to do remote learning. So we have to make that compromise. And I think that's part of the tension we're seeing now as districts really having to roll up their sleeves and deal with these very, very complex issues.
But districts have come up with very different plans that aren't based on caseloads in the county, or not even necessarily on the size of the school and and are not always based on the needs of families in their district.
How is the agency guaranteeing equity and safety and educational parity for all Vermont students under this plan?
I would push back to suggest that, in the case of in-person instruction, which is where the health guidance is directed, that should be very consistently implemented across the state. But you’re right: This variability we're seeing across the state isn't necessarily based on a reaction to the health conditions, which are fairly consistent across the state.
Each district has different facilities, the inputs that go into education. I think more importantly now, you have the layers of community and community interaction and staff interaction and the layers of anxiety and apprehension. Those are very real issues as much as the logistic issues. So on the one hand, I guess you could make the observation that the state would have been able to navigate these complex issues at the local level. But I’m not confident we would, especially based on my experience working statewide. There's an incredible diversity in our communities to begin with.
Champlain Valley School District Superintendent Elaine Pinckney talked about a hope that there's enough staffing, but not necessarily a confidence. Is that something that you're hearing from other districts around the state?
Yeah, I think that's a very fair assessment of where folks are at. I think it does point to how fragile these plans are based on these bottom line logistics, in spite of how elaborate they might be. Prior to the pandemic, when I’d drive around Vermont I’d consistently see the same sign on the lawn of every Vermont school, and that was: "Bus Drivers Needed." So we have labor shortages we had before COVID-19. And this is only going to become more challenging. I think once again, this is why districts need to have the flexibility to prepare for hybrid, remote, in person and to work closely with their staff, as we heard. And I think of all the superintendents talking today, how closely they're working with all their stakeholders to develop these plans, but also to figure out the practical elements of them.
How are you trying to keep track of what districts are doing?
We decided fairly early due to the complexity of this work, that we didn't have a lot of capacity at the local level also to simultaneously design and then also comply with a state directive or model. So we intentionally sort of said, I'm not going to require submission of these planning documents. I am keenly interested in the data and the patterns that emerge. So what's happening now is that I'm in daily, if not hourly, contact with superintendents about their intentions and am providing feedback on that. We're also on a weekly call with superintendents. That's been continuous since the beginning of the emergency, more or less. So we are supporting districts locally. But I felt that the larger effort now, particularly as we turn into August, needs to be spent on actually articulating those plans.
Do you have a sense yet of how many families have indicated that they will be withdrawing their children from Vermont's public education, either in favor of homeschool or another option, like an independent school?
We don't overall. I can give you some information on homeschooling. Our data showed last year, around July 15, that we had approximately 900 home school applications. And this year, that number is closer to 1,700. So there's been a significant increase in the number of those homeschooling applications. I will say that trend was starting before we published the hybrid guidance. So I'm sure a lot of parents at that point were trying to make the choice between in-person instruction versus homeschooling. So that was that other option on the table.
Some schools are basically trying to accommodate two or three different models of learning because of the needs of families and of their staff. I mean, that seems almost impossible to accomplish.
I'll say it's imperfect, but this is an emergency and it's unprecedented and we don't have any road map to follow. So I think we have to feel, on the other hand, confident that we can work through these problems at the local level. And it's heartening to hear parents coming together on Facebook to support one another. And I think that's how we’ve been successful in responding to this emergency today, how we'll handle come fall as well. I think everyone is focused on doing what's best for kids and making sure our schools are safe for both staff and students.
Not every parent is going to be able to do that. With the really varied resources and abilities of parents and families to be able to support their children through these models, what does the Agency of Education do about it?
That’s one of the biggest concerns we have, frankly. And we struggled a bit before getting the hybrid learning model. We knew in some cases that would exacerbate these would-have-been persistent patterns with inequity in our state. So a couple of things from the state level in terms of remote learning in particular. Our experience this spring, much to the credit of Vermont teachers, was imperfect. Well, we've learned a lot about how to do that better. We have better infrastructure at the state level, we've expanded access for learning management systems.
But these these patterns of inequity are ones we should be very focused on during an emergency response. And as I mentioned earlier, I think one of the things we will do is to start collecting data, firstly on the experience, because I think it's important to acknowledge as much as we're all anxious about the fall, just the fact that we're reopening schools and getting those routines reestablished.
Really, the priority should be on returning students to some semblance of normalcy, getting those social, emotional supports in place at which schools do so much, not just academically, but also by providing those other activities. So I think going into the fall, we really want to put some emphasis on just reopening schools and not so much coming in hot and heavy immediately to assess the academic growth or loss.
Is there a chance, as we've been hearing rumors of that, that the start date of school may be pushed back later into September?
Yeah, that’s something we have been looking at quite actively for a while. Even at the end of the legislative session, I think the issue is calendar and use of time is one we want to have a statewide conversation on. But specifically around Labor Day, I think there is some interest in that conversation. And last week I polled the various education associations for their feedback on that. It was sort of a mixed response, but I think folks can acknowledge that everyone would benefit from a little more time to prepare.
The other thing I'd say is that if we are going to make a decision, it would be very, very soon. I think the utility of that decision loses some of its impact after August 1st. So it's something we're actively looking at. And we'll decide on that shortly.
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