Rebecca Holcombe: Planning for Schools and Child Care Programs to Resume

As a parent, a lifelong educator and Vermont’s former Secretary of Education, I know how important our schools and our childcare providers are to our children, our families and our communities. Our schools teach core subjects, and they also are key to children’s social and emotional development, parent involvement in the workplace, and movement toward equity of opportunity. 

Reopening schools and child care programs will require clear communication from the state and active engagement with local stakeholders, including educators and staff, to support safe local plans. There are five concrete items the state should be focused on full force:

  • Building testing and tracing capability, including much faster results,
  • Expanding broadband access,
  • Tangible public health supports for schools and child care providers who are assessing their facilities and planning for reopening,
  • Flexible yet detailed guidance for districts,
  • Clear and specific protocols on what to do if a suspected case is found in a childcare program or school, or in the event a closure is needed.

Schools and childcare programs are preparing to keep students safe and learning in the face of any eventuality: in-person schooling, virtual learning, or some hybrid. There are a number of more specific measures we can take to implement best practices and the latest research in Vermont:

  • Plan with inclusion in mind from the start, keeping systemic inequalities in the forefront of our work.
  • Prioritize getting the youngest children back to in-person learning as much as possible, as these little learners 1) appear to be the least likely to spread disease, 2) are the hardest to educate online, 3) need the most parental care, and 4) are learning critical skills that enable independence later on.
  • High schools should prepare students for the possibility of learning virtually or outdoors, allowing indoor spaces to be used to spread out younger students.
  • In the absence of in-person learning, schools can look for ways to sustain safe and physically distanced opportunities for social connection.
  • There are individuals who, because of age or personal health circumstances, will not be able to be part of an in-person reopening. Vermont could find itself in a position where it lacks sufficient staffing to support the planned reopening. We must prepare to be as flexible as possible in supporting our experienced educators, even if they are unable to come into a school building.
  • Random sampling of school and childcare staff, as well as rapid return of test results, are tools for staying ahead of spread.
  • Districts may seek partners to identify other spaces, including public auditoriums, libraries, and gymnasiums, that could be repurposed to support separation of small groups. 
  • The right option will differ by district, given differences in physical plant and current ratios. The state can provide support as administrators assess the use of their physical spaces.
  • Districts need guidance for how to support parents who are anxious about allowing their child to attend school.
  • More than ever, schools need to emphasize connecting with students, supporting students’ emotional and social needs, and ensuring learning is both engaging and purposeful.
  • The Department of Health must have the staff and resources to keep us safe, and districts should have ready access to public health experts and real-time public health guidance.
  • Schools require access to the best possible technical assistance through their continued efforts to make sure students can log on. 
  • Schools functioning virtually need ways to support quality education while reducing the homework pressure that will require additional hours in front of a screen.
  • Career and technical centers will require unique and specialized public health assistance, given the diversity of contexts and type of education they provide. 

We don’t know what the situation will be five weeks from now. Different schools and child care providers in different regions may face different circumstances. Our educators and support staff are managing an incredible lift, making sure everyone is prepared for both online and in-person learning, as well as some mix of the two. We need to be prepared to have them pivot between different strategies, based on public health guidance. And we need to understand that while the work they do mitigates and reduces risk, it can’t eliminate risk. 

Reopening safely is dependent upon containment of COVID-19, and that is not something our child care providers and schools can do on their own. Whether and how we have in-person learning is not just a function of what schools do to prepare; it is a function of whether people wear masks in public, practice physical distancing, practice good hygiene, and work to limit spread of the virus. Places of learning will only be as safe as their communities. Protecting health is protecting the economy, because if COVID-19 spreads rapidly here as it has in other states during reopenings, we will be compelled to shut down again.

I cannot end without reemphasizing that social-emotional learning and equity of opportunity, including for students with disabilities, need to be a priority in the coming year. While physical safety is paramount in our minds, we must never let that social and emotional goal slip. A generation of children relies upon our commitment to their well-being.

In closing, please mask up to open up.