MONTPELIER — State officials continue to insist on schools reopening for the fall while admitting the logistics of doing so are quite complicated.
At his Tuesday news conference, Gov. Phil Scott had health experts address how it appears students should be safe to go back to school even though the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread. They talked about the state’s low infection rate and the widely believed theory that children don’t easily transmit or are not significantly harmed by COVID-19.
The governor said seven weeks ago he set a clear goal to reopen schools for face-to-face instruction. He announced Tuesday he will sign an executive order this week stating schools will reopen Sept. 8.
School administrators had been anticipating such an announcement, but some aren’t too happy about it.
Brigid Nease, superintendent of the Harwood Unified Union School District, published an open letter Saturday detailing all of the logistical issues school officials face in reopening schools during a pandemic.
She said superintendents across the state were sent an email July 22 asking if they would support a mandate for opening schools Sept. 8. Nease said the question came in two days before the school district was to publish it’s model for reopening and other districts had already released their plans.
“Many superintendents throughout the state already started to delay the start of school by one week until Aug. 31 by changing regional calendars. Why? Because we have many, many, unanswered questions,” she wrote.
She wondered why the state picked Sept. 8. Scott said Tuesday he picked that day to give school officials more time to put their plans together and test them out to make sure they work.
“Traditionally, I thought many, many years ago when we didn’t open our schools until the day after Labor Day. So this is in consideration of many of the families still getting through the summer as well as appreciating the fact that many of the districts still need to put their plans (in place) and test their plans,” he said.
Nease said in her letter the “elephant in the room” when it comes to reopening schools is they likely won’t have enough staff to do so. She said leave requests are already starting to come in.
“The truth is, most school employees are scared to death they will get sick (or worse), bring the virus home to loved ones, have a student in their care become ill, or experience the death of a coworker. However, the even bigger reason for leave requests is the untenable position this state has put school employees in by creating homegrown reopening schedules that do not align. Many Vermont school employees work in districts different from those they live in. They have their own children in several grade levels in schools throughout the state,” the superintendent wrote.
State officials have put a focus on local control when it comes to reopening schools, saying the school districts are all unique, so it doesn’t make sense to have the state dictate how reopening should go.
Dan French, state secretary of education, said Tuesday some schools may have to close because they won’t have enough staff to function.
Nease wondered in her letter if she should advertise for and hire new teachers and substitutes to make up for the staff lost because they get sick or need to take care of their own children. She said none of those hirings are included in the current school budget so that would mean taxes would go up.
While not giving a dollar amount, the governor and French said money has been set aside from the federal government as part of the CARES Act that will go towards education. The secretary said some of those funds can be used for hiring additional staff.