Schools plan for remote learning after break

  • By Jim Sabataso, Rutland Herald
  • December 16, 2020

With Vermont schools heading into December break next week, concerns about outbreaks of the novel coronavirus as consequence of holiday travel and social gatherings have prompted some districts and supervisory unions to transition to remote learning when classes resume in January.

Similar concerns over a spike in COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving prompted Gov. Phil Scott to issue stern guidance about limiting travel and social gatherings, including asking students to report their activity on health screening surveys upon return to school.

Many school officials balked at the suggestion, deeming the question too intrusive.

Still, several school districts around the state opted then to go fully remote until January as a precaution.

While none in Rutland County went that far, Rutland City Public Schools did go fully remote for a week after Thanksgiving, and Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union went remote for a single day to assess any potential need to quarantine staff or families.

Ultimately, a Thanksgiving surge never materialized. New daily cases of COVID in the state have remained on par with mid-November numbers.

“We hope this means that Vermonters either avoided Thanksgiving gatherings or kept them very small, and we truly appreciate that. None of our recent contact tracing efforts have revealed clusters of cases coming from this holiday,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said at the governor’s regular news conference Dec. 11.

On Wednesday, the state reported 73 new cases with 30 hospitalizations, including six in the ICU. In Rutland County, there are four new cases, and 71 cases have been reported during the past 14 days.

The state positivity rate, a metric used to gauge how safe it is to loosen state restrictions, currently sits at 2.1% — higher than the summer average, but below the 5% threshold the state considers a warning sign. To date, 105 people have died statewide.

In K-12 schools, 34 cases of COVID have been reported during the past week and 195 cases have been reported overall, according to data released by the Vermont Department of Health on Dec. 13. Those numbers reflect individuals with COVID who were physically at a K-12 school while infectious.

But despite Vermonters’ good behavior and steady numbers, a Christmas surge can’t be ruled out.

At RNESU, Superintendent Jeanne Collins said she isn’t taking any chances.

On Tuesday, she announced the supervisory union, which includes Lothrop Elementary School, Neshobe Elementary School, Barstow Memorial School, Whiting Elementary School, Leicester Central School and Otter Valley Union Middle and High School, will move to remote learning Jan. 4-8.

Student meals will continue to be provided to families that need them during break, and will be delivered daily during the remote week.

Collins did not send out a formal survey, but based on conversations with principals, she said it was clear that many staff and families reported they would not be as likely to avoid seeing family during the December holidays as they were during the Thanksgiving break.

RNESU saw a 10% increase in families requesting remote learning after Thanksgiving, Collins noted.

She determined that suspending in-person learning the first week back from December break effectively cleared people of the quarantine window after Christmas gatherings.

“It just made sense, to be safest for all, that we learn remotely that week,” she said. “And hopefully by making this decision, when we return on the 11th, we will return stable.”

Collins pushed back on the argument that going remote after break gives people license to be less restrictive in how they socialize during the holidays.

“It is not my place to make individual life decisions,” she said. “The governor’s guidance — and it is guidance — is vague. There are exceptions. And it is not my role as a superintendent to play Solomon and help somebody figure out whether or not they meet an exception.”

Collins said staff and parents are adults, and need to make well-informed decisions, stating, “I am aware that those personal decisions may impact the school so I am trying to make an informed decision based upon the best information I have.”

On the southern end of Rutland County, students in the Mill River Unified Union School District also will be learning remotely the week of Jan. 4.

According to Superintendent David Younce, the decision was made based on responses to a survey sent to district families. Of the 405 responses received, 79% indicated going remote was a good idea, or that it didn’t matter either way. A little over 8% said it was a bad idea.

The district includes Clarendon Elementary School, Wallingford Elementary School, Shrewsbury Mountain School, Tinmouth Elementary School and Mill River Union High School.

In addition to going remote after break, district schools will close on Dec. 21 — two days earlier than scheduled in order to provide families with two full weeks of vacation.

Meals will be provided to students who need them during break as well as the remote period.

“We realize that these plans are significant. We value having our students and staff in person and see this as the best way to approach the holidays in order to ensure that we keep as many people in person for the long term,” Younce wrote in a message to the Mill River community on Dec. 11. “Ultimately, our goal is to inject certainty into an uncertain time period and provide enough time for families and staff to plan and make arrangements as needed.”

Nearby, the Greater Rutland County Supervisory Union will join RNESU and Mill River in going remote beginning Jan. 4. Classes will follow a regular schedule every day except Wednesday, which will be a morning half-day. In-person instruction will resume Jan. 11.

GRCSU includes Rutland Town School, Proctor Elementary School, Proctor Junior/Senior High School, West Rutland School, Poultney Elementary School, Poultney High, Middletown Springs Elementary School and Wells Village School.

“While we understand the hardships that this decision may bring upon you and your families, we felt that taking a proactive stance and bringing some certainty to a very uncertain post-holiday situation would provide both our families and staff with enough time to make appropriate arrangements,” Superintendent Christopher Sell stated in a message to families this week.

Schools in Rutland City, meanwhile, intend to maintain the status quo after the break. That’s according to Superintendent Bill Olsen, who wrote in an email that in-person learning for grades K-9 and a hybrid model for grades 10-12 will resume Jan. 4.

“Currently, there is no case information that indicates that we should learn remotely after vacation. Additionally, there is no directive from the state government that points us in that direction,” Olsen wrote in a message to the RCPS community.

To the west, Slate Valley Unified School District plans to return to in-person learning when classes resume on Jan. 4.

The district includes Castleton Elementary School, Castleton Village School, Benson Village School, Orwell Village School, Fair Haven Grade School and Fair Haven Union High School.

In a message to families Monday, Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell stated that data specific to the district does not support a move to remote learning.

“Our schools are some of the safest places for students and staff to be as we carefully follow the health and safety guidance. Of course, student and staff safety is always our priority, and we will adjust as the data indicates, but going remote is the very last thing we want to do,” she wrote.