Schools Reopening and Believing in Vermont Communities

Join Team Holcombe

Across the state, as schools prepare to open and school boards meet to discuss options, people are voicing uncertainty and fear. 

We must resist any impulses to turn against our community members and do our best to look out for those students and families most affected by the challenges ahead. For school boards and staff, the goals of being safe, meeting needs, and supporting learning can sometimes feel in conflict. This is a time for us to be gentle with each other, as we work together to care for young Vermonters, educators, and parents through this pandemic. 

This is a chance to develop new models for learning that will let us emerge with better education than we had before. Here are a few things the state, our communities, and individuals can do to make this difficult situation work as well as possible for everyone.

Young people:

  • Communicate your needs to the adults around you.
  • Understand that everyone is struggling in one way or another with this challenge of COVID-19. It is normal to feel stressed and upset at times. Be sure to reach out if you’re in need of support. 
  • Do your best to notice and give support when one of your friends is sad or struggling.
  • Remember that the stress people feel is not your fault, and grown ups sometimes struggle too. 
  • Lastly, remember to work together with your friends, classmates, teachers, and with your parents, and we will all get through this together.

Parents:

  • Acknowledge your fears, and then work hand-in-hand with your school to address them. We need to think of reopening as an education “barn raising”—we all need to pitch in and work together to care for our children over the next year.
  • If you have a concern, reach out to work with your school directly.  Understand your local leaders and staff are doing their very best, under uncertain and challenging circumstances.
  • As always, let your children know you love them, and that you will take care of them to the best of your ability. Support other parents in their own work to help their children. This is truly a moment to be there for all children.

Communities:

  • Support each other in our choices. Different families will make different decisions about how children return to school, based on unique circumstances and differences. Some children depend on school for nutrition, health, social engagement and learning.  Others have families who are able to meet these needs. Not all people will be able to return in person, including medically fragile staff and students, while others need in-person support more than others. The right solution for one family will not be the right solution for another family. Let’s work to help our neighbors where they are, without judgement, so we all come through this safe and strong.
  • Support your local schools in making the best decisions they can under these impossibly uncertain circumstances.  School boards are responsible for taking care of a community, not just individuals. Standing by our neighbors in this uniquely challenging moment is what makes our communities special.
  • Mask up to open up. Schools can’t keep people safe from COVID-19 if we don’t all work together to keep COVID-19 out of our communities.

Districts:

  • Communicate in a coordinated way to the extent possible. When district leadership and representatives of teachers and staff provide unified communications, they underscore their commitment to working collaboratively.
  • Plan for the reality that some students will need to be in person as much as possible, and others will not come back at all until the pandemic is over. Both need education and support. The question is not whether schools provide in-person versus virtual learning, but how to provide in person, virtual and hybrid models, and how to pivot between these options.
  • Prioritize equity of opportunity. When schools are inclusive, they are more likely to be supportive of all students.
  • Emphasize that young people need to feel safe, healthy and connected before they can learn. Young students may need to be in person to meet these needs. Many high schools may have greater ability to learn virtually, but may desperately need physically distanced, in-person social connection. 
  • Use the outdoors. As a former outdoor educator, it has been so inspiring to see how many districts are exploring outside options to engage and connect with students. Some schools are teaching core subjects in a concentrated way online, then using as much time as possible to have students outside, doing field work and hiking, and building health and appreciation for our environment. Some are considering purchasing tents and using municipal pavilions for “pods” of students, to keep as many students outside as long as possible. 
  • Teach differently and teach different things. The same self-regulation and executive functioning skills students need to direct their own learning are the same skills that will make them effective on the job down the road.  They are as important as content knowledge.
  • Lean into personalized learning as a way to meet student and family needs. Make the same effort to provide accommodations for teachers as well. What is a challenge, is also an opportunity. Some teachers have health conditions that prevent them from teaching, and some students have health conditions that prevent them from returning to school in person. One innovative example: schools around the state are “sharing” teachers who can’t return to school in person with a Vermont online collaborative, in exchange for full time student spots for students who also can’t return in person. This is a creative way to be flexible around very human needs.

The State:

  • Provide clarity on how the state will handle testing and tracing in school districts as schools open, similar to the UVM plan.
  • Clarify procedures in the event a student or staff member is identified as having COVID-19, including local strategies for closure and quarantine.
  • During this emergency, coordinate a uniform statewide calendar to reduce some of the workforce challenges related to having child cares and schools in different regions on different schedules.
  • Hold districts harmless, regardless of decisions parents make for their families this year. Move in advance to protect schools from financial instability, especially if large numbers of families choose to home-school during the pandemic, dropping the district’s average daily membership. Unexpected budget cuts will impact our most vulnerable students in the middle of a pandemic. 
  • Specify what measures are expected to keep people safe in schools. The phrase “as best you can” in guidance on distancing has left many staff confused.
  • Ensure guidance is consistent. As the State of Vermont develops comprehensive guidance, we can refer to examples of comprehensive guidance from other states
  • Pay as much attention to how we meet social, emotional, and learning needs through a pandemic, as we do to planning to bring people back safely. What children need now is connection, purpose, and hope.
  • Move to address our education system’s significant workforce challenges in the face of this pandemic. Vermont has one of the oldest teaching forces in the nation, and one of the most disproportionately female teaching forces, which in our societal reality means many of our educators have caretaking responsibilities beyond caring for themselves and their students.
  • For students with unique needs that require specialized services, frame guidance in ways that support positive relationships with families. Currently, the state is choosing to rely on procedures that are not designed for pandemic education, but rather for situations in which schools have failed to fulfill their obligations to students as outlined in their Distance Learning Plans. These new procedures are deficit-focused and structured in ways that are inherently more adversarial, which comes with risk to all involved. They also appear to conflict with guidance that was issued in the spring. 
  • Plan for the needs of local districts as residential programs close, shifting more students with significant challenges and needs to their local schools. We need robust state support so these vulnerable students continue their progress.
  • Communicate clearly up front that school this year, even where it is in person, will not look like school has in other years.

Virtual Community Forum Information

I will also be hosting several virtual meetings open to educators, students, and parents this week at the following dates & times:

These meetings will serve as a safe space for community members to voice questions, share suggestions and identify concerns about schools reopening.


From Betsy DeVos to Vermont’s local Koch ally, Rob Roper, people are already seizing this pandemic as an opportunity to defund public schools and privatize education. The reality is that in a moment of crisis, it was public education that was able to show up. Systematically and in every community, educators and school employees showed up to provide critical services in a moment of crisis, particularly for those who depend on support most. The decisions we make in the next year will have a profound impact on whether, as a state, we can truly say we believe every child deserves a fair chance. 

Let’s do this the Vermont way—together, as communities, with civility and wisdom. I hope to get a chance to hear from some of you in the upcoming days. 

I am so proud to call myself a Vermonter as we face this challenge together and don’t forget to #believeinvt. 

-Rebecca Holcombe