story and photos by Doug McClure
HARDWICK –On March 13 of this year, Hazen Union Principal David Perrigo made an announcement on the school’s public address system. Introducing himself with “this is your captain,” he told students to take home with them everything that they might need because, due to COVID-19, the school might not reopen the following Monday. Two days later, on March 15, Governor Phil Scott ordered all schools to shut down and switch to remote learning.
What followed was a turbulent period in which teachers and students struggled to adapt to an unprecedented interruption to the school year. The switch was a big challenge to students, teachers and parents that ended with a thoughtful transformation of senior graduation festivities.
When it was announced that schools would reopen, school administrators, students and parents braced for another round of chaos. But more than a month into the reopening, much of the chaos has abated. What has emerged from the crisis are new opportunities that could benefit both students and educators.
Arne Hagman, middle school and high school science teacher
The word Hagman repeatedly used to describe March was “crazy.” He said that while he had prepared himself for the possibility of a switch to remote learning, the reality “did not go the way I expected.” Part of the issue, Hagman said, was that a fully remote learning system was not available in March.
“What I thought would be fully workable remotely did not work out,” he said. “I had to adjust. I feel very comfortable with technology, but the fully remote teaching was not ready.” Educators “did as well we could, given the circumstances” he said.
This year, Hagman said, is “off to a much better start.”
But Hagman admitted he was concerned when he first learned the schools would reopen.
“I was very nervous,” he said. “Having two elderly parents, I was very worried about how to keep them safe.”
So far, he said, many problems from the spring seem to have been resolved. And there are some new, unexpected benefits. The shortened school day, ordered by the state to allow for teacher preparation, allows him time to touch base with students who need extra attention. “The school has given us time to work with kids we otherwise wouldn’t have the time to, and we also use it for teaming, and meeting,” Hagman said.
Having extra time to spend with students who need it is just one benefit the pandemic has generated, Hagman said. The Hazen Union Artisan and Entrepreneurship Academy has been renamed Makerspace and has big plans. Hazen Union is also offering an enhanced partnership with the Vermont Virtual Learning Collaborative (VTVLC).
“I think there’s some really good things that can come out of this in the future,” Hagman said.
Other new programs include the Hazen Arts Academy, which was fast tracked to become a functioning program in collaboration with the Highland Center for the Arts (HCA).
But certain struggles remain, Hagman said.
“We still have a few kids who it’s hard to get to remotely learn,” he said.
Grant, 17, said she is taking advantage of the HCA collaboration. Her schedule places the senior at HCA on Tuesdays for a focus on music, and Wednesdays for art instruction with teacher James Lockhart. Grant said the experience has “been fun” and she has learned a lot, but some adjustments have been difficult.
“It’s really weird only seeing my teacher once a week,” she said. She added the change in routines from previous years makes it “harder to manage my time, knowing what homework is due is harder, because there’s more of it. And remembering meetings.”
Grant’s classes are now longer which she said is “a good thing, and my in-person classes tend to be engaging and dense.”
Asked how she got through the end of last year during the shutdown, Grant said she “just focused on my most important classes, my math classes, my advance placement classes” and “it was very weird.” Now, she said, “I feel like I’m able to get more done.”
Grant wants to study linguistics—”it’s a long-term special interest of mine”—and hopes to go to college when she graduates. As of now, she said school is going well. “I definitely have some anxiety, but I’m fine.”
Gann, 17, a senior, remembers the March shutdown vividly.
“I was scared, I think, that was my first reaction,” she said. “Even though they said it was possible, it was pretty rough, we were all caught off guard. Even though we were warned it might happen.”
The teachers “did try” to adjust to the news, “but they were having a difficult time, too,” Gann said.
Gann describes returning to school as “pretty nerve-wracking.”
“I was worried that people wouldn’t be following the guidelines,” she said. “But I think we’ve done a good job.”
When they first returned, students “didn’t have a schedule,” Gann said. But once the details were worked out, “it was smooth sailing.”
Gann said she is taking two VTVLC classes: introduction to astronomy and a forensic science course. Her future plans include attending college “in a school in the Northeast” and “trying to become a teacher, maybe a college professor.”
The disruption to last year’s graduation is still fresh in her mind. “I’m worried about not having a graduation ceremony,” she said. “I wish it was normal, but I can’t really do anything about it.”
Even without the pandemic, ninth-grader Shepard was set to experience a major transition this year as he advanced from middle school to high school. Shephard, 15, described the shutdown as “chaotic.”
“I was nervous about going online, how that stuff would work, I was nervous about not getting my work done, and I didn’t, always,” he said.
Shepard said things are very different now. “Doing online a couple days a week, it’s not that chaotic,” he said. “I was relieved we were going back to in-person, I needed it more structured than online was. And you can actually go talk to a teacher now if you need to.”
He said returning to school was “a relief” and “I wasn’t really worried about much.”
Although students wear masks, Shephard said, there is some discrepancy in teacher guidance on social distancing and mask protocol when students are outside.
While Shepard is not taking a VTVLC course, he is participating in the Makerspace and said, “that turned into robotics club.” He said when the school first asked students to pick a “club” this year, the concept wasn’t clear, but now he is in robotics club and is really enjoying it. His involvement in the club has led to a role as a yearbook photographer, Shephard said.
Shepard is now thinking about pursuing photography and robotics long-term as he said that will look better on a college application.
“The hardest adjustment,” he said, “is doing the half-online, half-in-person. Sometimes I need something structured, hands-on.” Shephard said when he expressed that concern to a teacher, the teacher adjusted their teaching style accordingly.
“It’s hard doing hands-on, though, because you can’t touch things that other people have touched,” he laughed.
Wohlberg, 11, is a seventh-grader. He was originally set to go to Craftsbury Academy but swapped to Hazen Union to attend a specific teacher’s class. He said of returning to school, “My mom’s a doctor, and she felt good how things were being handled.” As for the news around COVID-19, he said “I’ve understood most things.”
He said he is “excited to have all my classes, I get to do all of them.” Specifically, he said “I like that it’s two main classes instead of short ones.”
Sadie Gann, 12, a seventh grader, is the younger sister of Deanna Gann. Gann who was attending Hardwick Elementary School during shutdown, said “it was kind of sad because I couldn’t get to see my friends.” She said she made a video for her friends, but “the saddest part was we didn’t get to celebrate” sixth-grade graduation.
Despite the adjustment of going from elementary to middle school, she said she had been to Hazen Union many times before and was familiar with the school’s layout. Returning to school this year worried her parents, she said.
“My mom was really worried and my dad, too, about if people weren’t wearing masks,” she said.
Despite the concerns, “everybody’s pretty good about” wearing masks at school, Gann said. She said everyone wears masks “pretty much all the time except mask break outside.”
Gann said she hopes COVID-19 doesn’t take away her “favorite sport” this year. “I’m looking forward to playing basketball,” she said. “I hope they let us do it.”
Seventh-grader Finn Burgess, 12, knew coming to Hazen Union from Lakeview Union would already be an adjustment due to the number of students. “I think one of the hardest things was, Lakeview’s so small, I’d known all the kids and my teachers my whole life,” she said.
Burgess said of the shutdown, “It was kind of confusing and a little bit scary. It was sad because we just stopped seeing our friends. I didn’t have the time to say goodbye.”
Arriving at Hazen Union during the pandemic, Burgess said “I was a little nervous, but I know our state’s been handling it well.”
She described her first year as a middle-schooler as “really fun.”
“I love it,” she said. “I’m getting to see my friends, even though we have to wear masks.”
Burgess said so far things have gone well at school, except “sometimes I do find it kind of hard to contact a teacher.” She said her schedule can sometimes be hard to remember, too.