by Doug McClure
HARDWICK – In a letter to Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union (OSSU) school boards, National Education Association (NEA) affiliate Orleans Southwest Education Association (OSWEA) expressed concerns over the OSSU’s reopening plans.
In its letter, the OSWEA demanded that the OSSU school boards take steps “to remedy the OSSU’s shortcomings in planning for reopening schools.” The letter stated that OSWEA seeks to “inform” the OSSU that “the faculty and staff of the schools within the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union have received inconsistent or inadequate training, personal protective equipment [PPE], and time to plan for the safe reopening of schools.”
In a separate letter, a copy of which was reviewed by the Gazette, Hazen Union Principal David Perrigo concurred. “I wish that I were in a position to refute these concerns, unfortunately, I do not have any information that supports the safe opening of schools,” he said. “In fact, quite the contrary, I am only in a position to add to the list of concerns.”
Perrigo responded to the OSWEA letter in an e-mail directed to the Hazen Union and OSSU school boards with additional concerns. Perrigo wrote, “The concerns of the OSWEA are well-founded.” He added that he raised his own numerous concerns before, beyond those raised in the OSWEA letter. Perrigo wrote that the pressure to reopen has silenced worried faculty and staff, and added, “I have tried to calm my conscience, but the last two weeks that our staff have spent in the building preparing for the year have only compounded my concerns.”
In his letter, Perrigo summarized his concerns, which he said date back to July meetings with the OSSU leadership team.
“I did not then, and do not now, support opening Hazen for ‘in-person learning’ at this time,” he wrote. “I have advocated for opening Hazen ‘remotely’ until we can be sure that ‘in-person learning’ does not put our community at risk and in dysfunction.” Perrigo described the decision to reopen as “racing toward certain disaster, and this disaster will be upon us long before COVID raises its ugly head in our community.”
He argued that opening for in-person learning at Hazen Union “is simply unmanageable under the present conditions, yet the decision to do so is not in my hands.” He said his position on the matter has “clearly been in the minority” within the OSSU leadership team. “In an educational career spanning 40 years, I have never wished so strongly to be wrong about something,” he said, adding that “the evidence does not support this woeful wish.” Calling the situation as an “unprecedented moral dilemma for me as a school leader” Perrigo described his “struggle to fulfill my most critical responsibility: keeping my community safe and assuring a reasonably functional system for managing school operations.”
In response to the OSWEA letter, OSSU Superintendent Adam Rosenberg said, “We’ve trained staff in each building in proper use of PPE, proper hand hygiene, signs and symptoms of COVID-19, proper use of disinfectants in their classroom spaces, and VOSHA [Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration] guidelines on returning to work.” He added that the safety coordinator had been to each school for question-and-answer sessions with staff.
“We have sufficient PPE on hand and have more on its way,” he said. “We’ve provided teachers with extra time in the afternoons to plan during the first week of school (students will be dismissed after lunch), and they have additional planning time each day during the month of September (students will be dismissed an hour early each day), which can be continued if needed.”
The OSWEA letter described what it characterized as “incomplete and conflicting responses … regarding how much personal protective equipment is on hand. We have also been told by the nursing staff that the quality of the PPE that has been provided by the State of Vermont is inadequate. The gloves tear and the ear loops on face masks break with little use.” The letter also described “inadequate and perfunctory training on the proper use of PPE.”
In his letter, Perrigo said, “SOAR [Safe Opening And Reentry] training has ranged from the ridiculous to the absurd.” Instead of reducing concerns, the training left people feeling even more anxious, he said, explaining that the training content suggested “the people in charge do not know what they are doing.” He added, “lining up the entire staff outside bathrooms and having them go in one at a time, observing whether or not they know how to wash their hands, and checking off their names on a list, does not inspire confidence.”
In its letter, the OSWEA said “the OSSU has failed to set a strict standard for school closure in the event of positive COVID-19 tests” and “failed to identify multiple dedication isolation spaces for each school.”
Perrigo added there is “no workable plan for ‘isolating’ people who exhibit COVID symptoms at school, given that the symptoms are indistinguishable from other sources such as the common cold which we all know runs rampant throughout schools during the fall season.”
Both letters question the basic logistics of the OSSU’s education plan, with Perrigo’s letter describing a scenario where isolations in response to COVID cases among teachers could wipe out available staffing. The OSWEA described the OSSU’s “unrealistic and inconsistent expectations” for instructional delivery, with teachers “expected to plan for multiple modes of instruction and given no time to do so.”
Perrigo described a recent incident that further shook confidence in the OSSU. “It didn’t help when staff learned the next day that the entire OSSU nursing team, with whom they had all just been in contact, went into isolation for fear of possible exposure to COVID,” he said. “None of this is the fault of our wonderful nurses, they, as the rest of us, are in an untenable position.”
He wrote “there is no workable plan for how we are going to administer the necessary health screenings before students enter our building.”
The “few staff” who initially volunteered for that responsibility were reduced to three administrative staff “when OSSU clarified its position on financial remuneration.” The three staff would need to cover two entrances, he wrote, and one member of the team “is in a high-risk category and, as such, not a good candidate for this task.” Plans to keep staffing levels manageable are inadequate, he added. If staff “follow the current guidelines about when they should stay home … this will quickly overwhelm our ability to manage school safely.”
Perrigo wrote, “Some members of our health team continue to express serious concerns privately about the current course to opening, but do not feel [comfortable] expressing these views publicly given the pressure to ‘OPEN, OPEN, OPEN.'”
Perrigo said the plan he developed and offered to staff for “making decisions about their own safety” was overruled and had to be rescinded. “My last-minute plea to the leadership team to adopt a policy that would allow staff to work from home whenever possible to avoid any unnecessary exposure was denied,” he wrote.
In his letter, Perrigo argued that “90% of the work we have done for the last two weeks could have been done from home” and the school’s “very successful experience” in June implementing a remote teaching model was ignored. Perrigo wrote that teachers are currently sitting in their respective classrooms communicating solely through their computer screens which “could have easily been accomplished with folks working from home.”
The requirement that staff must be in the building at all times “has left many staff feeling untrusted, disrespected, and fearful about whether their welfare really matters,” he said.
Perrigo wrote that while he recognized the unanswerable questions posed by COVID-19, “the stock response to these questions has consistently been: ‘We can’t anticipate all the possible challenges and we will have to cross those bridges when we get to them.’ This does not inspire confidence and suggests an urgency for reconsidering the course of action.”
Both letters recommended fully-remote learning until safety concerns can be addressed. The OSWEA wrote, “The OSSU should adopt a hybrid model of instruction that allows for focused, in-person instruction once adequate safety measures have been put in place, and well-planned, intentional remote instruction.”
Perrigo urged the Hazen Union School Board to weigh in on the matter. “If there ever was a time for a school board to weigh in, that time is now,” he wrote. “Anything less is, in my opinion, unconscionable. Our positions as leaders in our community require nothing less of us.”