OSSU Board Meeting Highlights Continued Concern over Reopening Preparations

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – Tensions ran high at the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union (OSSU) board meeting on Sept. 7, with several attendees voicing passionate concerns about plans to reopen the schools for in-person learning. Letters expressing fears about the restart were submitted by the Orleans Southwest Education Association (OSWEA), (covered separately on Page One), Hazen Union Principal David Perrigo, and Craftsbury Academy (CA) Principal Merri Greenia. At press time, Greenia’s letter had not been released to the public. During the meeting, an additional letter was received from OSSU Superintendent Adam Rosenberg that served as an official OSSU response to the OSWEA’s letter. The bulk of the meeting was spent with the OSWEA and OSSU administration at loggerheads.

The SOAR Team

OSSU Board Member Katharine Ingram asked Rosenberg about the Safe Opening and Re-Entry (SOAR) committee that met over the summer. Her understanding, she said, was that it included educators. Rosenberg nodded ‘yes’ while OSWEA President William Adams shook his head indicating ‘no.’ Rosenberg responded that SOAR comprised two teams, an initial team including educators, and the succeeding “core” team that met over the summer. On the “core” team were Rosenberg, safety coordinator Ryan Bjerke, facilities coordinator Tod Delaricheliere, and OSSU Nurse Leader Betty Stewart.

“Once summer started, teachers were on summer break … Ryan [Bjerke] generously opened up [the core team] to Will [Adams] and several other folks who wanted it throughout the summer,” Rosenberg said. “But we were very careful because we’d been told an invitation could be seen as recruitment.”

Adams contradicted Rosenberg’s statement. “I made clear to the administration at the end of the school year [we] would be available all summer in our capacity as the union leadership. We work when we have to work,” he said. “I made that clear to the administration, but that offer was ignored. I fell off of the SOAR committee invitations at some point, and then fought my way back on.” Adams said it was misleading to suggest there was teacher involvement, particularly on some of the bigger issues such as having to teach in three different models, which was done “in a vacuum through the leadership committee, the leadership retreat. Again, an event that I offered input on, and I was rebuffed by Adam [Rosenberg].”

Rosenberg responded that SOAR was only intended to address “safety and health,” to which Adams responded, “Speak to our working conditions, Adam. To suggest that those [safety] things are not something that should be of concern for professional educators, it doesn’t pass the straight-faced test.”

Ingram said she thought excluding educators was generally “a poor decision” and “you can’t separate the two.”

OSWEA Clarifies the Intent of Its Letter

OSSU Board Chair Amy Rosenthal declared public comment was stricken from the agenda due to heightened emotions and divergent opinions. “That’s not going to happen tonight,” she said.

In his brief opening statement, Adams said the letter to the school boards was an extraordinary step taken after more than half of the union members said they wanted their concerns heard. Chief among the concerns was the perception that teachers and staff “have not been intimately involved” in the reopening process and “in some cases, we’ve had to fight our way into conversations about how reopening schools is going to look.” Adams said “our greatest frustration is, for all the talk of how valued we are and how you care about our well-being, the actions don’t really play that out. We would not have brought these concerns to the boards if we felt our questions, our reasonable concerns, were being listened to and answered.”

He then stressed that OSWEA’s letter, which was dated five days prior to the opening date of schools and contained numerous demands, including “adequate time to plan” for teachers, was not an attempt to delay the reopening of schools. “It is far too late to be making that decision,” he said. “The curtain goes up tomorrow, and we need to be ready to welcome your children with open arms, well, not with open arms but figuratively open arms.”

PPE, Distancing

The sparring between the OSSU administration and OSWEA continued. Adams raised OSWEA’s concerns about PPE for schools: “I’ll give you an example. Our criticism of the PPE [in the letter]. That came directly from our nurses, those are the medical professionals that you have hired and they tell us that it’s unacceptable. That the masks fall apart, that they put the gloves on, the gloves break. We don’t have an agenda here. There’s no reason for us to say these things if they’re not true.”

Ingram said while not enough PPE had arrived to sustain the entire year, more than enough was on hand for the start of school and “a lot of stuff was ordered but not here yet.” Rosenberg said “We’re certainly stocked for the beginning,” and added that the school expected parents to send their kids to school with cloth masks, but some would be on hand to loan should a student lose theirs during the school day.

Greenia said Craftsbury Academy received lots of PPE, as did Lakeview Union, according to Administrative Assistant Lorelei Wheeler. “Our nurses’ room looks like a hospital!” wrote Greenia in the Chat window. Wolcott Elementary Nurse Cynthia Doerr said “The quality of PPE we received from the state was inadequate, as was indicated during the training at Hardwick with the gloves tearing while being donned. Each box contained 40 PPE gowns, one box of inadequate gloves that tear, and only one face shield that is not the appropriate size for an adult,”

Nurse Leader Betty Stewart also shared concerns with the board. She said she requested every school building have medical personnel on hand but was told that, despite COVID-19 funding from the government, the money for medical workers wasn’t there. In cases of a medical situation, some schools would have to call 911. She said training for the nurses had not been completed because the required forms had only recently been received and, compounding the issue, some school nurses had expressed they would not participate in the training because it violated their ethics and principles as healthcare providers.

Rosenberg said while guidance on physical distancing had in some cases been reduced from six feet, the OSSU was continuing to use six feet as its metric.

Changing Numbers, Changing Guidelines

There was additional confusion surrounding available supplies. Hardwick Elementary Principal Patrick Pennock told the OSSU board that, based on the most recent numbers, the school was full but not overflowing for in-person learning, while Adams stated, “I have fifth and sixth-grade teachers telling us they are over capacity now. This is an example of us not being listened to.” Pennock, and at times Rosenberg, said part of the confusion was due to the fact that every aspect of the situation changed almost daily.

Communication Breakdown

Hazen Union Board member Brett Stanciu said the “complete lack of communication” was “the other real obstacle” and she was “shocked” to see the OSWEA letter just days before school opened.
“We’ve gotten no information as a Hazen board member from the OSSU board at all, almost nothing from the superintendent, and I don’t mean to be irritated about this, but as we’re going to move forward we need to do so in a transparent way,” she said. “And that means that we support our teachers, that they feel supported. We’re asking them to do something that’s incredibly difficult.” Stanciu said it was also essential the board “respond to our community and communicate with them.” She appealed to the board to “reflect on what you’re doing, reflect on the decisions you’re making, or the information that you’re not forwarding on [because it] affects hundreds and hundreds of people in a way that maybe is not necessary.” She argued that “nobody on the Hazen board has any idea what the plan is for opening Hazen, what the difficulties are going forward, what the steps are. Now all of a sudden we get a letter from the teachers’ association five days before school starts saying ‘we are really struggling’” She characterized the situation as “excruciating for parents and, I can’t underscore this enough, if it’s excruciating for parents it is excruciating for our students, and that has not been brought up. It is really difficult for them.”

Ingram, whose children attend the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative (VTVLC) program, also expressed frustration. “I appreciate that there’s this rosy sort of display that’s put on by how [VTVLC is] going, but I have two children enrolled in it and I have absolutely no idea what’s happening tomorrow,” she said. “I haven’t been told who our teacher is, no one has contacted me. I understand things aren’t going to be smooth, but as a board member I wish what was being presented to the board was a more accurate picture of how it’s actually being experienced by the community members and the parents.”

Praise, and Doubt

Not everyone offered criticism. Northern Counties Health Care Nurse Practitioner and parent Jeri Wohlberg said, “Vermont is in a situation like no other in the country, we are the envy of the United States. We have done an amazing job. In the counties the OSSU represents, the case counts are extremely low. People have complained to me all summer long about all the out-of-state license plates and all the out-of-state residents that were here and might bring COVID to the Northeast Kingdom. It never happened.” Wohlberg stressed “we have not laid eyes on many of these kids for six months. Students need to learn, and remote learning is not an adequate replacement for in-person learning.” She added that parents need to work, and keeping schools closed or only in a part-time capacity has a ripple effect on the entire community if not the country, in terms of lost learning, lost wages, and lost opportunities. “I can speak from experience that going to work can be disconcerting when you don’t have all the answers or full control over the situation,” she said. “However, once you embark, you quickly feel more comfortable. I feel confident that the leadership has done everything in their power to ensure safety of staff and students.” She ended her comments by reminding the members that “school is an essential service, and if there is any supervisory union in the entire country that can pull this off, this is the one.” While Lakeview Union’s Wheeler shared Wohlberg’s view of the OSSU response team, another person remarked that Wohlberg’s answer sounded politically motivated.

OSSU Board member Kim Silk said “There appears to be a major management problem at the OSSU management level.” The issues were apparent “in all these missteps, miscalculations, people resigning their jobs,” she said. “I’m not comfortable that the management at the OSSU level is functioning anywhere near adequate for what is necessary for us to educate our students.” Rosenthal replied that dwelling on past mistakes was not helpful and people needed to look forward. She added, “the fact of the matter is none of us are experts at this,” and then, “I’m encouraging us all to please take a deep breath, have faith, then if it doesn’t work out we’ve got the expertise in the room as much as any expertise can be in a room to figure it out.” She asked for trust between teachers, the board, and the administration. Silk replied “You are missing the point. You said trust and you just heard from three board members that said they don’t trust the information that we are being given. You can’t move forward if you don’t trust the information that is given to us.”

Health Concerns

A Hazen Union teacher asked Wohlberg about plans for student COVID-19 testing prior to returning to school, but Rosenthal shut down the idea of a question-and-answer session. Wohlberg replied to the question in chat, stating “I think testing could add to the situation in a positive way, however, the pretest probability is low because the incidence is so low in this area.” Wohlberg said colleges often test with assistance through the Broad Institute in Boston. “Testing here is available, but may be cost-prohibitive and slow (right now turn around is somewhere between 3 and 5 days),” Wohlberg said.

Nurse Leader Stewart said at this point nurses do not have enough staffing or a clear enough picture of students’ health to administer medications. “It’s very frustrating for us that we feel like we’re not prepared,” she said.

A previous testing protocol involving students having their temperatures taken and their health visually observed before getting on the bus has been scrapped. The new protocol calls for each student to present the bus driver with a form completed by a parent attesting to the student’s good health. Rosenberg said all screenings now would be done at the schools. “We’re asking families to complete health screening surveys prior to the student leaving their home, and those initially will be paper forms that would be presented to the bus driver,” he said. “That’s their ticket to ride the bus.” He said an app would soon be rolled out to replace or supplement the paper forms.

When asked by OSSU Board Vice Chair Rose Modry about concerns Perrigo raised regarding compensation “changes” for teachers engaged in the screening process, Rosenberg said that was just a “misunderstanding,” and that teachers were under the impression they would receive $18 a day to do the screenings instead of the $18 an hour the OSSU would offer “for fifteen minutes of screening.”

Three Modes of Teaching: In-Person, Hybrid, and Remote

The OSWEA’s concerns about teachers trying to juggle three teaching modes simultaneously was addressed. Vice Chair Modry described it as a “huge expectation.” She said teachers had just received a new learning platform “a week or three days ago,” and while they were “eager about this platform,” they did not have access to it. Rosenberg responded that teachers were not expected to fully understand the platform right away.

One person remarked, “Does the board understand the extreme challenges of being responsible for teaching in-person, remote, AND hybrid students?”

“If you hear frustration in my voice, it’s because we’re frustrated,” Adams said. “We have no agenda. We want to do our jobs, we want to do it safely, and we don’t want to burn out. We have continually raised concerns about being required to teach in three different modes at any given time.” He added that the frustration stemmed in part from the fact that “our professional judgment is ignored. Administrators look at us and they say ‘It’ll be fine, don’t worry, it’s not going to be as bad as you think it is.’ Well, they need to get out of their office and come down to a classroom and try it.”

Rosenberg said if the reopen is not successful the OSSU was prepared to “go into full remote a week into [school] if need be.” Rosenthal suggested the OSSU administration coordinate with the OSWEA for a “temperature check,” before acknowledging the poorly-chosen analogy. “We need to know how the teachers are doing.”

With more than 100 minutes consumed by reopening discussions, Rosenthal closed the discussion shortly after 8 p.m.