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Vermont Schools, Parents Get Ready For School Closures

A bunch of people in a room.
Nina Keck
Rutland City Public Schools interim superintendent Dave Wolk spoke to school bus drivers and maintenance workers Monday morning to reassure them that they would not be losing their jobs even as schools close to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Over the weekend, Gov. Phil Scott ordered all Vermont schools closed starting this Wednesday until at least April 6, and possibly much longer. And on Monday, schools were tying up loose ends and preparing the students, families and staff for this strange new normal.

Windsor Southeast Superintendent David Baker sent out an email message this weekend, soon after Scott announced he wanted the state’s schools to close. Baker told the Windsor community that he wanted school open on Monday to let the students have a “proper goodbye.”

A person holding coffee.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Sarah Attwood.

Sarah Attwood has five kids in the Windsor school system, and she said she supported the superintendent’s decision to open Monday.

“Well, I think it’s good. I have a special needs child, so it was good for him to be able to go in, and have some closure with his staff and his teachers, and kind of get a better understanding, because he is very confused,” Attwood said. “So I was happy that school was open today so my kids could go in, get their stuff, have closure around that, and good instruction on what they need to be doing.”

Attwood teaches across the river in New Hampshire, and so she knows all about the challenges facing students and teachers as they navigate the widespread closures caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

She said she has faith that teachers will do their best to continue educating their students, but knows some experiences will be lost. And for students like her niece, who’s a senior on the girls’ basketball team, there’s no way those experiences will ever come back.

“The senior all-star game for basketball got cancelled, and she was supposed to be recognized,” Attwood said. “She’s Gatorade Player of the Year for Vermont, she’s a Vermont Miss Basketball, and she’s not going to get that opportunity to have that recognition. I’m devastated for her. She worked so hard: She’s going on a full ride scholarship to University of Maine for basketball, and to have her season end like this, as a senior, has been devastating. You know, we’re all pretty sad about it.”

A person in a "highland" sweatshirt.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Kyle Smith.

Another Windsor schools parent, Kyle Smith, said he has a flexible job, and that he and his wife should be able to handle having the kids at home. But he understands for some, it won’t be so easy.

“We’re going to be okay,” Smith said. “We’re just worried about the parents that don’t have the flexibility, and that are going to have to put the kids with people who are home, or maybe even the people we are trying to protect.”

The Windsor Southeast schools closed after the school day Monday.

In Rutland, where the city’s public schools enroll slightly more than 2,000 students and employ several hundred employees, attendance was optional Monday and Tuesday. Starting next week, teachers will interact with students remotely.

Dave Wolk, Rutland City’s acting school superintendent, said it’s a big change. But he also said he believes it’s the right decision, and one they’ve been preparing for over several weeks.

Wolk told VPR about all of it in his car Monday morning as he drove to meetings.

“So our plan is to make sure that every teacher has a plan in place for online learning, approved by the principal by the end of the day Friday, so that we can start up [next] Monday with that process,” he said.

A person standing over a desk in a suit jacket and tie.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Rutland City Public Schools interim superintendent Dave Wolk said he was at work just after 6 a.m. this morning and has been preparing for the coronavirus for weeks.

Wolk added he got a lot of questions over the weekend from parents and teachers.

“I probably had, I don't know, 150-200 emails, and that was before the decision was made to close the schools,” he said. “And I think for many of those people, there’s a sigh of relief that the schools are closed.”

More from VPR — Gov. Closes K-12 Vermont Schools Starting Wednesday To Slow Coronavirus

But there’s also a lot of uncertainty, which is why Wolk has been meeting with staff face-to-face. He’s been assuring them their jobs and pay will continue, and on Monday morning, he spoke with about 25 bus drivers and maintenance staff:

“Hi everybody … First of all, how many of you worked over the weekend, cleaning the schools?  All of you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Wolk said every school in the district was deep-cleaned and disinfected over the weekend. And while bus drivers will no longer carry students, he said they would still drive their routes, bringing breakfasts and lunches made by the district’s food service to regular drop-off sites.

A fleet of yellow school buses.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Rutland City Public Schools bus drivers said ridership was down by more than half of the usual number of kids on Monday. School buses will be used to deliver food to distribution sites while students are out of school.

“For so many students, school is their home away from home,” Wolk said. “We become surrogate parents to so many kids. And perhaps for some students, the only nutritious meal a day is one they get at school.”

Drivers liked this idea. They said their buses were nearly empty already, as parents were keeping children home, but kids have also been talking about the virus, and many students have expressed relief to their bus drivers that meals would continue.

Wolk said he's also been working with officials from Rutland Regional Medical Center to see how interested high school and middle school students, along with para-educators, could provide child care services for health care employees who need it. He said they’ll meet Tuesday to work out details on that effort.

"Hospital staff will meet with interested folks who would then be hired by the hospital to go in and provide child care on a voluntary basis,” Wolk said. “So I'm hoping to use this as an opportunity in partnership to help our health care professionals in the area.”

Because the situation is evolving so quickly, Wolk said the most important thing he and other school officials can do is stay calm, cool and collected, to offset the anxiety that so many families are feeling.

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