The Vermont Agency of Education has been asked by the president pro tem of the Senate to create a task force to plan the reopening of Vermont’s public schools following their closure in March to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.
Sen. Tim Ashe, P/D-Chittenden County, published on Facebook on Monday his letter to Dan French, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education. Ashe asks the task force be assembled immediately to “develop strategies to safely and successfully” open the public schools that were closed as part of Vermont’s state of emergency.
“Most importantly, the task force must include teachers, superintendents, principals and school board members in order to develop strategies that will work in the field,” Ashe said in his letter.
Education continued through remote learning, and schools completed the 2019-20 school year. They’re expected to reopen for in-person learning for students in the fall.
Ashe said he understood the state reacted quickly in March that needed to be taken to keep Vermonters healthy. But now with some time until schools are back in session, Ashe said he wants to be sure a careful plan is created and stakeholders are involved.
Ashe said he’s heard from both employees of school districts, including administration, faculty and staff, as well as parents of students about their need to learn how the state plans to safely resume in-school education.
“The amount of uncertainty and anxiety that’s out there both from people who work in the schools, but also the users, the parents and the kids, really merits a coordinated effort and not waiting until mid-August and issuing a kind of blanket set of regulations. Then every school district says, ‘Well, wait a second that sounded great in theory but we have to actually implement it and it doesn’t work for us.’ That’s why I feel time is of the essence,” Ashe said Monday.
However, Gov. Phil Scott does not support the creation of an additional task force.
By email, Rebecca Kelley, a spokeswoman for the Scott administration, said French already is meeting weekly with a group that includes representatives of the Vermont-National Education Association, the health department (including its pediatric health expert), the Vermont Principals’ Association, the Vermont Superintendents Association, the Vermont School Boards Association, the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators, and school nurses.
“This group continues to meet weekly on how to implement the guidance this fall so we can safely reopen schools for in-person instruction. While it may not be called a ‘task force,’ it’s a broadly representative group, which is tackling the different tasks associated with the planning for school reopening this fall,” Kelley said.
While Kelley said members of Scott’s administration don’t believe they need an additional task force, she said they “hope teachers will lend their expertise and bandwidth to the local efforts of implementing the health guidance effectively.”
Ted Fisher, director of communications for the state’s agency of education, said in an email that French has received “several requests similar” to Ashe’s.
Fisher said the education agency has “worked hard to solicit input and feedback from stakeholders throughout the pandemic.”
Last week, French met with a VT-NEA leadership group, including its president, Don Tinney, that has been working on various aspects of guidance for reopening schools.
Members of the union have asked French to consider a statewide planning group. Tinney agreed to submit a proposal that would explain the purpose of the group and its membership.
“We represent teachers, para-educators, custodians, bus drivers, administrative staff, and those are the folks who will be implementing all the guidelines that are coming down from the state,” Tinney said Monday. “So we need to be at the table as we figure out what the specific requirements will be.”
Tinney said the VT-NEA was in general agreement with Ashe. The union wants to be sure support staff like custodians and food service workers are part of the discussion not just because it will fall to them to carry out the instructions that result from the discussions but also because they “can provide information about the way the schools work.”
“They know the traffic patterns of students through a school. They know what the bus routes are like. They know about the behavior of children between (kindergarten) through 12. … The doctors and the epidemiologists are the experts in public health and our members are the experts in how schools work. That’s why we need to make sure that they are there to help write these plans as well as implement the plans,” he said.