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School Reopening Plans Under Scrutiny

School bus
Pat Bradley/WAMC

As the fall semester approaches, school districts across the region are under scrutiny as they release re-opening plans. But the districts are also raising concerns as they work to integrate state mandates into their plans.
Vermont legislators have been reviewing plans by school districts to safely reopen schools under guidance issued by the state Agency of Education. The House Committee on Education held an hours long meeting to hear from school superintendents, education advocates and state officials on reopening plans. Committee Chair Shelburne Democrat Kathryn Webb said there is palpable anxiety about schools reopening in the midst of the pandemic.  “The ability to keep schools open is based on our communities’ willingness to follow health guidelines to keep the virus at bay. We know that if we don’t the virus sneaks in and we close schools.”

Schools not only have to plan for student health and safety by adhering to state mask and social distancing mandates but must also deal with germane issues such as revamping class schedules due to adjusted class sizes and the impact of remote learning on teacher schedules.

About 1,100 students attend the six K-8 schools, a high school and a preschool that comprise the Orleans Central Supervisory Union in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Superintendent Bev Davis says some issues that initially sound simple are quite complex. “We had some decisions to make early on.  One of them was how we were going to handle bussing. When we found out that kids would need health checks on the bus we had to decide how those health checks would take place. This took hours and hours and hours of conversation. Once we had that figured out now we could start to think about was there room in our schools to bring all the kids back?”

In New York staffing and transportation are also key concerns for rural school districts as they plan to reopen. Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik recently hosted a NY-21 Working Group meeting with K through 12 school administrators.

Hartford New York Central School Superintendent Andrew Cook told Stefanik that for schools considering a hybrid or fully remote plan, broadband access is problematic.  “We’re a rural district. Broadband does not really exist here. So as a district we’re working with a couple different internet providers for MiFi to provide actual internet access. Right now for our students grade 6 through 12 we’re going to operate on a hybrid schedule. But if we go to a fully remote environment it’s going to be very very difficult for us to be able to provide equitable access for all of our students.  And that doesn’t include the cost considerations that are going into trying to make this reopening plan function.  If you look at the PPE, the cleaning materials, the equipment and then just the additional technology that we need just to function at a basic level it's getting pretty extreme.”

Two bills are currently being debated in Congress. The Republican HEALS Act would provide $70 billion and the Democratic HEROES Act allocates $58 billion in funding for K-12 education. The House Democrats’ bill also contains billions in state and local aid that governors say is key to making districts whole.


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