Poll Finds Vermonters Split Over Reopening Public Schools This Fall
As education officials across the state weigh the risks and benefits of in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic, a new VPR-Vermont PBS poll has found that Vermonters are split over whether students should head back to the classroom this fall.
COVID-19 has forced a number of difficult policy decisions in Vermont, but few are more consequential than the question of whether or not to reopen public schools for in-person learning.
Bryan Olkowski has spent his first months as superintendent of the Washington Central Unified Union School District navigating the new public health landscape.
Olkowski interviewed for the job in January, signed a contract in February, and reported for his first day of work shortly before COVID-19 emptied the six schools his district operates in central Vermont.
“It’s induction by fire,” Olkowski said Wednesday. “But it’s a great community, we have a really strong leadership team, so I’m very thankful for that.”
Olkowski recently unveiled fall reopening plans for the district.
Schools that serve kindergarten-through-eighth grade students will welcome students back to the classroom fulltime starting Sept. 8. High schoolers, meanwhile, will be on a week-on, week-off hybrid program that incorporates both in-person and remote learning.
"There's a lot of anxiety and emotions and fear around the unknown, and what I'm seeing is that play out amongst teachers, staff, parents and families." — Bryan Olkowski, Washington Central Unified Union School District superintendent
During a Zoom meeting on Wednesday night, Olkowski fielded questions that reveal the complexity of the school reopening dilemma.
“Will any testing be done before school opens?” asked WCUUSD school board member Jonas Eno-Van Fleet. “Will there be surveillance testing available during the year?”
“Are there going to be like, scheduled mask breaks for kids? Is there a plan around some outdoor time?” board member Diane Nichols Fleming wanted to know.
“What is the threshold level at which a decision to go completely remote would be made?” asked board member Chris McVeigh.
Olkowski said his office has been inundated with questions from parents as well. And he said their concerns are well-founded.
“There’s a lot of anxiety and emotions and fear around the unknown, and what I’m seeing is that play out amongst teachers, staff, parents and families,” Olkowski said.
According to a VPR-Vermont PBS poll, 47% of Vermonters favor schools reopening this fall, while 42% say they should remain closed. Figure in a margin of error of plus or minus 4%, and that means Vermonters are statistically split over the wisdom of bringing students back to the classroom.
“These are unprecedented times, and we’re asking school districts to do a lot of new work in a lot of areas,” Secretary of Education Dan French told Senate lawmakers earlier this week.
While French and Gov. Phil Scott are encouraging districts to reopen for in-person learning, the final decision about whether to bring students back to classroom, and under what conditions, rests with local districts.
“We knew that school districts would have difficulty implementing any sort of top-down approach in the state, because we have a diversity of school facilities, transportation arrangements, operational arrangements,” French said.
According to the Agency of Education, only about half of school districts have landed on a reopening plan. And they vary widely, from full-time, in-person learning to shortened days to hybrid programs in which students learn remotely some days, and enter physical classrooms on others.
"These are unprecedented times, and we're asking school districts to do a lot of new work in a lot of areas." — Secretary of Education Dan French
Dr. Rebecca Bell, a pediatric critical care physician at the University of Vermont Medical Center, is among the medical professionals urging Vermont education leaders to place a high priority on getting kids back in the classroom.
“It’s where kids grow socially and emotionally,” Bell said this week. “It’s where they receive really important services, so mental health services, developmental services, behavioral services and support.”
Bell said the benefits of in-person learning are even more pronounced for younger students.
“When they have that connection with a reliable adult, that is a protective factor for our youth,” she said. “It reduces likelihood of severe depression and suicide.”
"When they have that connection with a reliable adult, that is a protective factor for our youth. It reduces likelihood of severe depression and suicide." — Dr. Rebecca Bell, UVM Medical Center
And Bell said the children who need those connections the most are often the ones who are least likely to get it outside a school setting.
Bell said in states with a high prevalence of COVID-19, the public health risks of in-person learning far outweigh the benefits to students.
But she says Vermont has fewer cases per capita than any state in the country, and also the nation’s lowest percent-positivity rate.
“And that’s not just by a small margin, it’s orders of magnitude less,” Bell said. “And the risk [of in-person learning], although not zero, is very low.”
"Am I making a decision to go back to my job and putting my family at risk?" — Amy Braun, teacher at Rochester Elementary School
Amy Braun, who teaches kindergarten and first grade at Rochester Elementary School, said she knows how important physical connections are for child development.
“It’s super important at the age that I work with, especially to learn how to cooperate and share and wait your turn, things like that,” Braun said.
But Braun said she’s terrified of returning to a confined building during a viral pandemic. And she questioned whether schools are going to able to enforce the social distancing and mask requirements meant to curb the risk of infection.
“If they fall and they hurt themselves, am I supposed to help them up? Do I hold their hand? Do I give them a band aid? How does that work?” Braun said. “Am I making a decision to go back to my job and putting my family at risk?”
Braun has figured out a workaround, for now at least. She said she’ll greet kids at the school entrance, and promptly usher them to an outdoor area to learn for the day.
“I have a fire pit and a circle of logs, and so I’ve already scoped it out,” Braun said.
It’s Braun’s solution to a vexing dilemma that likely isn’t going away anytime soon.
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From July 15 to July 28, the VPR - Vermont PBS 2020 Poll asked hundreds of Vermonters how they felt about COVID-19, racial inequality and other issues. Explore the full results here.