Updated 10:30 p.m.
Hours after Gov. Phil Scott ordered the dismissal of all Vermont schools by Wednesday to slow the spread of coronavirus, the Champlain Valley School District announced it was closing Shelburne Community School Monday and Tuesday after being notified of a community member with connections to the school who has tested positive for COVID-19.
While the school district said it was closing the Shelburne Community School at the direction of the Vermont Department of Health and the Agency of Education, this case had not been confirmed by health officals as of Sunday night. The health department reported three separate, new cases of COVID-19 Sunday afternoon.
The governor also issued a statement Sunday outlining Vermont schools' closure starting March 18 and lasting until at least April 6. Scott noted the closings "may very well be extended for a longer period."
Students are not required to come to school Monday and Tuesday if parents want to keep them home. But under Scott's directive, school employees are asked to report to work to help districts with three key goals Scott laid out:
- Arranging food and special needs services for children
- Helping the state provide childcare options for healthcare and other critical workers
- Developing continuing education plans
Schools that meet those goals can close before Wednesday.
“The orderly dismissal of schools is essential to support both the State’s response to COVID-19 and the needs of children and families across Vermont,” Scott said. “We must ensure children are safe, nourished, and still learning even as the traditional structure of school is disrupted. The work of educators will be essential in this effort.”
The governor continued: “This is a moment of service for all of us. I know that educators across Vermont will do their part to support students and families. I’ve asked the Agency of Education to work with superintendents and local districts to ensure every child continues to receive the services they need from their schools, as well as assignments to take home to continue their academic studies.”
The decision comes less than 48 hours after Scott declared a state of emergency but decided to keep schools open for the time being. The administration noted Friday they wanted to be deliberate in maximizing the public health benefit to closing schools.
“This decision is based on the best scientific evidence available to the experts at the Vermont Department of Health,” said Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine. “Closing schools at the end of the day Tuesday is another important step to help keep us ahead of the curve, in terms of preventing and reducing spread of COVID-19.”
At least 20 states have closed their schools, according to Education Week.
Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French briefed key lawmakers on Scott’s order Sunday evening.
French said agency officials and district administrators are aware of the logistical hurdles ahead, but he said they haven’t necessarily determined how to clear them.
“A lot of our work now is in exactly translating the details,” French said. “What we’ve embarked upon as part of this crisis, how do we enact it to make sure students are fed, students are educated and so forth.”
He made clear that while schools may be shutting down, educational delivery will not. Teachers, who will be compensated as normal for the duration of the closures according to French, will continue reporting to work. And he said his agency is helping districts devise remote-learning programs for homebound students.
“And we want to ensure we have the adequate planning in place, the infrastructure, the tools and so forth to ensure students can make that progress and not lose important academic time,” French said.
Scott has ordered all Vermont schools to shut down until April 6, but French said the closures could be extended beyond that, if public health needs warrant. He said it’s critical that students get enough academic credits to graduate high school, or advance to the next grade, no matter the length of the closure.
French said he may seek a special waiver that would allow students to complete the academic year without the 175 school days required under current law.
“If we transition to a more prolonged school outage if that’s necessary, then we’re going to have to cross the bridge about making sure all students, including disabled students, continue to make educational progress,” he said.
French added special education students are top-of-mind at his agency as Vermont prepares for the closures.
Federal law requires schools to provide a “free” and “appropriate education” to students with disabilities and other special needs.
“Public education is going to go through a dramatic redefinition here in the coming weeks, so we need to ensure those students have adequate support to access the program that is being provided to their non-disabled peers,” French said.
Scott has said that the state will provide childcare to health care workers on the front lines of Vermont’s COVID-19 response. French, however, said his agency hasn’t identified how the state will provide that supervision.
“I don’t have answers to a lot of specific questions yet on those issues,” he told lawmakers. “But I think the important thing now is we’re going to be turning the focus of the agency and the field to that work.”
French said districts are also working on how to ensure low-income students on free and reduced-price meal plans continue to receive that food. He said the solution will vary by district, but that “grab-and-go” kiosks in urban areas, or delivery routes in more rural areas, are likely possibilities.
Burlington Mayo Miro Weinberger said Sunday that municipal employees may be able to assist school districts as they begin to confront the challenges associated with school closures.
Weinberger said he was already planning to suspend “non-essential” city services later this week, to slow the spread of COVID-19. He said many of those employees will be reassigned to assist the Burlington School District.
“I expect to deploy city staff from non-essential city services to assist in this effort, and the coordination for that effort has already begun,” Weinberger said.