This very strange school year is coming to a close. And while there are still a lot of questions about what Vermont schools will look like come September, some are moving ahead with in-person programs this summer.
When kids and staff return to several school buildings later this month, it will be the first test for how to navigate the new COVID-19 safety and health guidelines.
Normally, early June is hectic, celebratory and exciting at Newport City Elementary School.
“Teachers would be trying to finish up assessments and progress reports, and getting their rooms together, and getting ready for the summer,” principal Elaine Collins said while standing in an empty hallway at the school. “There’d be lots of conversations and relationships being maintained, and that’s just not happening in our current reality.”
The current reality is that all Vermont schools are closed. But Collins says the decision by her district to do some in-person programming this summer will be good for her staff, and for the students.
“The biggest payoff for having summer program is that relationship piece, that there are kids who really need to be able to reconnect with adults and peers," Collins said. "That’s the biggest benefit."
During normal times just about every school in the state offers some kind of summer programming for its students.
For kids with learning difficulties it’s a way to not fall behind during the summer, and for low-income families, it helps provide child care when school is out.
The Agency of Education recently released its guidelines for summer programming during the pandemic, and the state said it is possible to open the school buildings back up.
Beth Chambers runs the summer program at Newport City Elementary, and she says the school’s ready to have kids back. Things will definitely look different.
“All adults will be wearing facial coverings,” she said. “No more than two to three children per table. We’re going to encourage masks indoors. We’re going to wash hands one to two times per hour, probably, you know, 10 to 15 times throughout the day. That’s a lot of hand washing. But, that is, from my understanding, one of the most important elements of all of this is, is getting into habits of hand washing, not touching your face, and giving distance to each other.”
The Agency of Education issued the summer guidelines with only a few weeks before the start of summer programs, and those regulations that the state laid out for the summer aren’t necessarily what schools will have to follow come September. Next week, the Agency of Education plans to release the ground rules for the next academic year.
But Chambers says having kids here this summer will help out Newport City Elementary for what’s sure to be a challenging start to the school year.
“We might be a step ahead of some schools that don’t have any programming over the summer who are going to be walking in blind to the fall,” Chambers said. “And so I’m really hoping that we can use our summer programs to help inform the fall.”
Vermont's Secretary of Education, Dan French, says it's important schools "take advantage" of any time they can this summer to prepare for reopening in the fall.
Some schools are continuing with remote learning, but many of the school districts are not planning on having students return before September.
French said he understands that many districts don’t have the capacity to take on the planning right now, or the finances, but hopes some districts stay open to the idea, and maybe offer a shortened program later in the summer.
“I think it’s a little premature to decide not to run the programs as usual,” French said. “But there’s plenty of opportunity to run something different that could be more responsive to the needs of the community and help you prepare for the fall as well.”