'An Incredibly Stressful Time': Vt. Secretary Of Education On Reopening Schools

Sep 10, 2020

Students are returning to school this week across Vermont, mostly using hybrid models that combine remote and in-person instruction.

The specific plans vary by school and district, as officials strive to walk that line of providing effective instruction, but also keeping the population safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jake Rusnock spoke with Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French. Their interview is below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jake Rusnock: Different schools and districts have many different plans for how they're going to teach students this year. As the year moves forward, how will you assess whether the various models are successful and if kids are getting the education they need?

Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French has worked in Vermont schools for more than 20 years.
Credit Vermont Agency of Education, courtesy

Secretary of Education Dan French: Yeah, it's a great question. We were struggling with that over the summer. We knew the variations among our school districts and that we had to impart some degree of flexibility to school districts to implement what is, I think, fairly stringent health guidance.

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So as part of that compromise, we decided that we'll be doing a monthly data collection to school districts to identify, essentially, the learning opportunities that students are being provided. We'll begin that data collection towards the end of September, and we'll use that information to decide whether further guidance and direction – basically, regulation – is necessary to ensure that students are provided adequate learning opportunities.

Now, there have been concerns that teachers and staff retiring or taking leave because they're concerned about COVID-19 would lead to staffing shortages. Are you seeing that as the year gets underway?

Not yet. I mean, the school's been open for a day or so.

I think right now, a lot of our focus has been on just the logistics of reopening school. And I know people have been working incredibly hard to do that. And what I'm observing right now is there's a lot of excitement – the typical enthusiasm for reopening school.

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But it's important to note that districts have been under a lot of stress throughout the spring to do a lot of things they weren't necessarily required to do in the past. And there's going to be some wear and tear on the systems, including on people. It's an incredibly stressful time.

"It's one thing to open schools and I think people have done a commendable job adjusting and implementing fairly complex regulation in that regard. It's another thing altogether to keep them open." - Dan French, Vermont secretary of education

It’s one thing to open schools and I think people have done a commendable job adjusting and implementing fairly complex regulation in that regard. It's another thing altogether to keep them open. And that will require all Vermonters to do their part in terms of maintaining a high degree of pressure on the virus. But it's it's going to be challenging for districts to maintain this disposition over time.

So, once again, I think that's why it was important provide districts some options in terms of having remote learning, hybrid learning and so forth to fall back on and to adjust to changes in staffing availability, which will be a key variable for them.

If teachers get sick during the year and have to take time off, do you think there are enough substitutes available?

Yeah, I doubt that. There were not enough subs before the COVID emergency.

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Once again, I think the hybrid learning/remote learning does provide some flexibility. And that might be an option, where districts can utilize staff working from home to support the learning of students.

But it's going to be a challenge I think as we go forward, for sure.

Another challenge, possibly: special education students. Do you think the schools are prepared to meet those needs?

That's going to be a significant area of concern. It is nationally as well. You know, there's essentially been a hold on the learning of all students to a certain extent.

We've done our best certainly to promote learning in the spring, but now we're endeavoring to provide learning opportunities that are equal, if not better than what was provided to pre-COVID.

Part of that will be to reconsider student individual education plans under special education, and this will be a significant effort to focus in the coming weeks.

You mentioned at the press conference on Tuesday that you hope schools can move toward more in-person instruction if the first few weeks go well. What if things don't go well and there are big covered spikes?

The way our guidance is set up, we broke it down in terms of levels. So we have levels two, essentially, which is where we've opened schools, which is the most restrictive disposition relative to the precautions necessary for in-person learning.

You know, as we developed that guidance over the summer – that health guidance – our health folks were are advocating for opening at step three, because our conditions probably have never been better than they are. And certainly we expect that as we go into flu season, they will probably deteriorate to a certain extent. But arguably, we could have open schools at step three.

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We decided that it would be better to open at step two, to give schools the opportunity to practice those more stringent requirements, but also just as a precautionary measure.

So yes, if the data hold stable, we expect to make the transition step three here in a couple of weeks. If it doesn't, we will hold on step two. So we'll see what happens. But – knock on wood – so far, so good.

"I think it is one of the more obvious implications of our new experience in remote learning, is that we have some new options to maintain continuity of learning when we typically would not." - Dan French, Vermont secretary of education

So after the first couple of days of school, what sense are you getting right now from staff and students who are returning? Do you think they feel safe?

Yeah, that's a more complex question. I think you might know: I'm an experienced Vermont educator, so I've been doing this for 20-some-odd years. What I'm observing now is just the normal, if not more enthusiasm, just to see students again and to be back in the building and so forth.

But I think the underlying anxiety is there. It's there for all of us, and that needs to be acknowledged.

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So I think, you know, yes: people are excited to be back in school. And, knock on wood, once again, I hope that we can maintain the high degree of suppression.

But I think the level of anxiety will remain to a certain extent. Hopefully, it will be diminished to a certain extent as people gain increased confidence working in their schools, in their districts, that they can maintain their operations at a safe level. We have a lot of work to do in that regard, and it's just important to acknowledge that this is unprecedented for everyone.

Now, let's fast forward a couple of months. There's been some discussion that now that schools are set up for at least some remote learning, that could mean an end to snow days. Is that something the agency of education has any guidance on yet?

Not yet. You know, we weren't expecting it to snow this summer, but it is something that's been brought up and it's something we are actively looking at. It's something that has emerged in other states as well.

I think it is one of the more obvious implications of our new experience in remote learning, is that we have some new options to maintain continuity of learning when we typically would not.

But I do expect to address that issue at some point here in the coming weeks. I know several districts have expressed an interest in us doing so, so it is something we will take a look at.

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