Reopening Schools

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In just a few short weeks, on Tuesday, September 8th, our public PK-12 schools will re-open for the 2020-21 school year. I have heard from dozens of parents, teachers, students, and school staff members who are anxious about whether opening our schools during a global pandemic is a good idea and how we can ensure children, teachers, staff, their families, and our communities can remain safe. As an education policy maker, member of the Senate Education Committee, and mother of three kids, my primary policy focus during this state of emergency has been our education system, from early childhood programs through colleges and universities, so I am writing to share my thoughts about this transition.

If we can safely re-open schools for some in-person instruction this fall, I believe we should do so. This past spring, our public school teachers and staff did incredible work, under difficult circumstances, to educate, support, and feed thousands of local children. And despite all of these amazing efforts, many kids fell through the cracks. These students, and especially those with special education needs, unsafe homes, food insecurity, mental health issues, developmental needs, and/or working parents, absolutely need to go back to school in person, at least part-time, if they can do so safely. These students and their public schools must be our priority right now. They need our support and our focus.

I am not a public health professional, but based on the briefings from public health experts and the extensive information I have read, I believe that if schools are cautious and thoughtful in their planning and protocols, it will be safe to reopen schools for some in-person instruction. Indeed, I plan to send my own children back to school in person this fall. In Vermont, thanks to good public health and policy decisions and strong collective action and sacrifice, we are fortunate to have a low community transmission rate, meaning that a very small percentage of the general population is infected with COVID-19, which is crucial to the ability to reopen schools safely. In most other parts of the country, this is not the case, and re-opening schools for in-person instruction is absolutely not safe or smart. Check out this New York Times map to see what is recommended in every county in the country – Addison County is listed as “ready to reopen schools.”

It’s also important to remember that in June, most childcare programs in Vermont re-opened for in-person care and education of our state’s youngest children. Recently, I stopped by the Mary Johnson Children’s Center, Addison County’s largest childcare provider, to see how they were doing. They re-opened June 15th and have been serving 50 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers all summer. While re-opening was stressful for staff and teachers, and there were many protocols and routines to get used to, for the most part it has been a relatively smooth transition. Most children have adapted well and are happy to be back with friends and teachers where there is a regular routine, stimulating activities, and healthy socializing. There have been very few COVID cases within Vermont’s childcare programs, even during this past spring when when some programs were open to care for the children of essential workers. Early childhood educators in Vermont have been the COVID-era education pioneers and we can certainly learn from their experiences about how to make the transition back to school successful for younger children. Thank you to all of these amazing caregivers and educators!

Earlier this summer, the VT Agency of Education and Department of Health issued health and safety guidelines that schools must follow in order to re-open. School leaders have been working diligently to develop plans for the safe re-opening of schools. Most local schools in our area will reopen using some sort of “hybrid” model, which means that students will receive a mix of in-school and remote education. The most common model, adopted by most Champlain Valley schools, will have half the kids in school Monday-Tuesday, deep cleaning of school buildings on Wednesday, and the other half of students in school on Thursday-Friday. To find information about what schedule and protocols the school in your town has adopted, you can find information on school district websites:

Although much thought and preparation has gone into plans for re-opening schools in the fall, I know these plans do create incredible challenges for everyone involved. Childcare during “remote” days for the younger children of working parents, including teachers and school staff members themselves, is an enormous challenge. Safety concerns, particularly for students, teachers, and staff who have underlying health issues or live with those who do, remain at the forefront. Workplace safety, sick leave, and the stress of balancing multiple modes of instruction are concerning for many teachers. School nurses, bus drivers, and food service staff will be called on to perform tasks beyond their “normal” duties to ensure students remain safe and healthy. Students are stressed about this new format for school and how it will affect their studies and friendships. I know none of this is easy and that many people are working to find creative and thoughtful solutions to helping schools re-open.

I am incredibly grateful for everyone who is working on this transition and I share these concerns and others. We are re-opening schools in Vermont at the same time we’re also re-opening other institutions, particularly colleges and universities, and at a moment when we seem to be pulling back on widespread testing in Vermont. In order to maintain the low community transmission rate necessary to safely re-open schools, we should be continuing personal and professional vigilance and holding back on plans to re-open in person other, less essential areas. I have argued against calls from some of my colleagues who think the Legislature should reconvene in person later this month; I have also sent a letter to Middlebury College President Laurie Patton asking that she scale back plans to re-open the College and bring back 2,300 students to campus from around the country just two weeks before schools are set to re-open in Vermont. While Middlebury College does have strict protocols for students, I believe community leaders should be acting with an abundance of caution to ensure the health and safety of local residents and the ability of schools to re-open safely. Most college students can successfully learn remotely, at least temporarily, but many PK-12 students cannot.

In addition, I have pressed state and local public health officials about the trend to scale back asymptomatic testing at this time. While I understand that such testing has not yielded many positive cases and is resource-intensive to maintain, I am concerned that the timing of the decision to limit testing could be detrimental. When the Legislature reconvenes (remotely!) on August 25th, I will continue to advocate for more widespread testing, as well as better childcare options, sick leave and worker’s compensation protection for frontline workers, and the equitable allocation of funding to schools in the face of increased costs for re-opening. Finally, if conditions change, and it is no longer safe to have our schools open for in-person instruction, I will be a strong voice to act quickly to protect children, teachers, staff, and families.

If you have thoughts or questions about our schools reopening, feel free to contact me. Also, reach out to your local school leaders to be sure you understand their plans and priorities, and to share your ideas and opinions. Thank you for all of your efforts to help our communities stay safe and healthy. It’s more important now than ever.