by Doug McClure
HARDWICK – Last week began the soft opening for area schools, with reopening procedures that varied for each school. At Hazen Union, students returned in shifts based on grade. Craftsbury Academy (CA) also opened with a staggered schedule. When asked if the re-opening has gone well, multiple students, faculty, staff, and administrators, all of whom asked to remain anonymous, gave mixed responses.
Several applauded the newly-available programming, both through the schools and the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union’s (OSSU) expansion of its partnership with the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative (VTVLC).
Beyond the VTVLC, at Hazen Union, two new programs are in their early stages — one in collaboration with the Highland Center for the Arts, and another led by teacher Anja Pfeffer. Hazen Union’s new Makerspace is expected to see increased use tis year, as part of what one person described as a concerted and optimistic effort at Hazen Union aimed at “seeing this pandemic as an opportunity to shift how we do things.” Many, however, stated those reopening plans have thus far sometimes worked better in theory than in reality.
The OSSU’s partnership with the VTVLC is just getting underway. OSSU Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Amy Masse’ said that Hazen Union, Hardwick Elementary, and CA are using several available options from the VTVLC. Whereas some schools in Vermont are reportedly running into a “logjam” and waiting lists as the VTVLC accommodates a sudden, massive boost in enrollment, Masse’ said, “Most of our kids are getting in. It will all shake out more completely this week so we will know more.” One structural difference between the VTVLC and the OSSU, she said, is that in the VTVLC, sixth grade is considered middle school.
The first VTVLC option is a Collaborative School Option (CSO), which the OSSU is taking advantage of for the first time this year. The CSO program is an exchange program, said Masse’, with enrollment based on teacher participation. She said the ratio works out to “one teacher equals approximately 25 full-time enrollment seats.” Students grades K-5 use a remote learning platform called Maestro, and students in grades 6-12 use the Canvas program.
Masse’ said the OSSU has about 32 students using the K-6 CSO program and provided VTVLC with “one elementary-level teacher and 2.5 middle/high teachers and one reading interventionist.” Hazen Union is using the CSO option, she said, as well as “possibly other ways.”
CA is primarily working with the VTVLC through a “Partnership Program,” which she described as “a way for schools to access enrollment seats for their students based on their own teachers teaching through VTVLC. Partnership schools get 40 traditional enrollments and 10 school year on-demand enrollments. There is more to learn about this model,” she said.
CA Principal Merri Greenia said that beyond the eight high-schoolers enrolled in the Partnership Program, the school has three K-8 students in the CSO program: two at the elementary-school level, and one in middle school. Eight CA high schoolers are enrolled in the Partnership Program. Greenia said that CA has provided the VTVLC with two teachers teaching one course each, “which gives us all of the seats we need for our high school students.”
She said that “70% of Craftsbury students are attending full-time, and another 15% are currently on a hybrid schedule.” As much as possible, Greenia said, students are spending their school days learning outdoors and the school is exploring ways to increase that outdoor time. “We have two large tents, six picnic tables, and several benches on the Common, and one large tent and six picnic tables at the elementary school,” Greenia said. Distancing is working very well in the classrooms, but recess, outdoor classes, and lunch are “more of a challenge,” she said. CA painted “spacing markers on the grass” to help students understand the six-foot rule.
She said morning health screenings are “going well”, adding that “we have enough screeners, the traffic flow is good, students are coming off buses from seats spaced apart, and they stand on white dots on the sidewalk spaced 6 feet apart waiting for the morning check.”
When asked how they felt the restart was going, one Hazen student responded with an Edvard Munch “Scream” emoji. Another said the physical distancing measures fell apart the instant kids went into the school. “They thought they could keep kids distanced. That did not work,” the student said.
Another person, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed. That person said that because students did not always adhere to mask and distancing protocols, other students, faculty, and staff got freaked out, and the result was an increased overall stress level. “Everyone [socializing] is colliding and we’re all coming from such different places. Those exercising less caution make others uncomfortable, but of course, are unaware they are having that impact.” The effort to get students to comply with mask requirements was “a struggle” that got worse, said one person, compounded by “athletes who claim that they haven’t had to wear masks on the field when practicing” and therefore shouldn’t be required to wear them during normal outside classes.
Another described the re-opening among staff as “very controversial,” with some members saying they hoped that the union would back them up and help keep them safe; others felt duty-bound to educate students, despite the risks.
As of last week, the Vermont Department of Health said that there was no evidence of community spread of the virus anywhere in the state and that no town in the OSSU district had more than five COVID cases.