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'Kids Need To Be Connected': Grants Help Fund Vt. Summer Programs, But Staff Needed

A person in a mask in front of a black board
Peter Hirschfeld
/
VPR
Middlebury Union Middle School teacher Martha Santa Maria stands for a portrait. She's among the educators planning to try and create fun for Vermont's kids after more than a year of social isolation.

Gov. Phil Scott has vowed to provide summer programming to any student who wants it this year, and education officials are now trying to find the workforce they’ll need to fulfill that promise.

Last month, Scott delivered a sobering assessment of the state of Vermont’s youth.

“Our kids are not okay,” he said during a COVID-19 media briefing in early April.

Fourteen months of isolation from classmates and teachers has taken a toll on children, according to Scott, and surveys show increased rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues among students of all ages.

Scott says Vermont can use the summer months to begin to repair the damage.

“I’ve got veteran principals who have said this has been by far the toughest year in their careers. I’m worried about what our retention rate is going to be — this is the time of year when we start seeing openings. I’ve talked to at least three or four principals in the last couple weeks that just said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’” — Jay Nichols, Vermont Principals' Association

In Middlebury

Middlebury Union Middle School is home to about 280 seventh and eighth graders. On a recent cloudy Thursday morning, however, the parking lot was almost empty.

“It’s vacation week,” Middlebury Union teacher Martha Santa Maria explained.

Santa Maria was spending her so-called vacation getting her classroom ready for a return to fulltime in-person learning.

“And so to try to go from … 10 kids in the classroom at 6 feet apart to 17 or 18 people at 3 feet apart, it’s been taking some maneuvering,” she said.

Educators like Santa Maria have been maneuvering almost non-stop since the pandemic arrived last March.

“I see my colleagues work 65 to 85 hour work weeks, no exaggeration,” Santa Maria said.

So you’d assume Santa Maria is counting off the days until the last day of school, so she can finally unplug and catch up on lost sleep.

Santa Maria has no such break in mind, though. And she says her thoughts are already turning toward summer school. 

“I’ve always had to beg for grants, and really try to work 14-hour days in the summer to get kids what I felt that they needed,” she said. “And here we are, and we have some money, and we have an opportunity to really transform what summer program looks like.”

The federal money

That money Santa Maria’s referring to is coming from the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden in March.

The federal legislation allocates more than $70 million for afterschool and summer programs in Vermont. And education officials are busy trying to figure out how to spend it. The Vermont Agency of Education has hired Vermont Afterschool to administer a program called Summer Matters — it will award grants of up to $75,000 to summer programs willing to expand hours or take on more kids.

More from VPR: Poll: Vermonters Support More State Funding For Child Care

“We’re looking forward to seeing a variety of applications for serving children from kindergarten through high school, and really trying to do something different and something more this year with these dollars,” said Holly Morehouse, Vermont Afterschool’s executive director.

The money will also be used to make programming more accessible and affordable.

A critical time

Deputy Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey said the summer months will be a critical juncture as Vermont tries to emerge from the pandemic.

Many students, she said, have become less engaged with school, ranging from missed assignments and Zoom classes, “and then full blown truancy, or families and students just kind of being off the radar at that local level.”

Bouchey said summer programs provide an opportunity to draw those students back into the fold. But she said getting them engaged is going to require more than academic offerings.

“I think that if we do this right, that we really will be able to ensure that at least we’ve done some good by our children by allowing them to actually have some fun this summer. Gosh they need it after this pandemic, right?” Bouchey said.

Working around a wall

Jay Nichols, head of the Vermont Principals Association, says the obligation of administering summer programs cannot fall solely on schools.

While teachers like Martha Santa Maria may be eager for summer duty, Nichols said a lot of educators have hit a wall.

“I’ve got veteran principals who have said this has been by far the toughest year in their careers,” he said. “I’m worried about what our retention rate is going to be … I’ve talked to at least three or four principals in the last couple weeks that just said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”

Which means for summer programs  could be a problem. Vermont Afterschool has set up a special website to recruit workers for summer programs - they’re making an especially strong push for college and high school students. But as of this week, summer programs in all 14 counties are still looking for workers.

“We’re hearing from programs all over the state that they’re still hiring, that there is a need for staff and that in some areas, they have concern - will they be able to find enough people?” said Vermont After School’s Morehouse.

"I think that if we do this right, that we really will be able to ensure that at least we've done some good by our children by allowing them to actually have some fun this summer. Gosh, they need it after this pandemic, right?" — Heather Bouchey, Deputy Secretary of Education

Planning for summer fun

As Morehouse seeks staffing for summer programs,  Martha Santa Maria is busy planning hers.

She said she’ll let the kids take the lead: Maybe they’ll want to design and plant a garden, she said, or write and perform their own one-act plays.

What really matters, Santa Maria said, is that children have fun again.

“I believe that our kids need to be connected to each other and with adults who care, and their community,” she said. “They need to unplug. They need to be grounded in things that kind of renew their energy.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

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