Back on Sept. 8, when the Rutland schools returned to in-person instruction after a spring and summer with no children in our buildings, there was a palpable sense of “Is this going to work?” For, while teachers and staff had spent the summer planning on how to bring students back safely, there was still a fear of the unknown, the wonder of whether we could safely operate and learn while coping with the restrictions of the pandemic.
For me, that fear melted away when I watched our little kindergarten students marching up to the school doors with wide eyes, masks barely containing smiles, and all their new gear ready to start their journey. In every building, staff warmly welcomed our young people back. One could see clearly that students were exceedingly happy to be in classrooms again. As the months move along, a walk through the buildings reveals things as simply pretty normal. Students are laughing and learning; staff are committed to their vocation; and most of the events and traditions that happen in school are still taking place, albeit with a different look.
While this may appear generally effortless, it occurred only through an inordinate amount of planning, work and collaboration. Last spring, our staff had to pivot almost on a dime to remote learning. They did so successfully because of their commitment, their resilience and their ingenuity. All of that, and they were supported by the foresight of an outstanding technology team.
Then the district and every school spent the entire summer mapping out a return to in-person instruction. That required absorbing research and guidance from the state. It demanded significant revisions of schedules and operations. In an effort to meet the needs and concerns of all of our families, the district committed to offering three learning settings: remote, in-person and hybrid. To do so, teachers had to master a challenging balancing act of instructing in each setting, for many, synchronously. Our nurses worked with the Vermont Department of Health to make sure our practices were safe, aligned to the science of experts. An overarching commitment of our district was that we wanted our children in our buildings as much as possible. Our grades K-9 offered full, in-person instruction daily for every family who requested it. And in grades 10-12, we developed a hybrid schedule that met distancing requirements by providing in-person and synchronous instruction on alternating days.
When cases began appearing more frequently in Rutland County, our district COVID-19 team was more than ready to take on the challenge of contact tracing and informing parents of quarantine requirements. These team members work through evenings and weekends when cases arise. The goal is to make certain we can operate in-person instruction safely, while communicating the steps that maintain the well-being of staff and students.
The immediate outcome is that we have not seen spread in the school buildings. These actions thus limit transmission in the Rutland community, protecting the welfare of not just those in our schools, but their families and other community members.
The less obvious result is that, in a global pandemic when a significant number of districts nationally have not even reopened from last spring, Rutland City students have been in school through the school year. It may look different. Music and athletics have had to adjust. Breakfast and lunch take place in smaller settings. We are not allowed in-person concerts, dances, assemblies or even a packed basketball game in the Keefe Gym. But we make it work.
How does one define “we?” Our success this year has surely been due to the commitment of our staff. But our students and families deserve equal credit for that same level of effort, resilience and ingenuity. We want to thank the entire community for the outcomes the Rutland schools achieved so far.
To what benefit is all of this? Our local economy depends on having our children in school. Our children need the academic and emotional benefits of the many, many opportunities and services our schools provide. Our community avoids the worst effects of the coronavirus when our collective behaviors create the conditions that allow our students to be productively focused on learning.
Two great challenges remain. First, the pandemic and the school year are not over. And now our next task is to recover any lost learning. We need the continued support of the public to maintain open schools and services this year and into the next. But thank you, Rutland City and our surrounding towns, for all the entire community has done to achieve success in the face of great adversity.
Bill Olsen is Rutland City Public Schools Superintendent.