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Schools respond with caution

Windham Southeast superintendent considers short, long-term impacts of virus

BRATTLEBORO—BYOD: Bring your own disinfectant.

This advice may become de rigueur for any community gathering as the number of COVID-19 cases increases.

“We want to make sure we’re not overreacting,” said Windham Southeast Superintendent Lyle Holiday, “but that we’re prepared if we need to react.”

Holiday said sardonically that she might spray with disinfectant everyone who attends the upcoming annual WSESU meeting on March 17.

Holiday’s comment might be lighthearted, but the supervisory union’s preparations to respond to potential spread of the COVID-19 virus are very serious.

For the past two weeks, Holiday has worked with school administrators, nurses, and the state to prepare for when — not if— the virus lands in Brattleboro.

“So we feel our custodians are on top of cleaning everything from light switches to stair rails,” Holiday said.

First case in state hits WSWSU

Over the weekend, the state announced that Vermont had its first confirmed case of the virus.

The virus was identified in a patient in Bennington County.

In response to concerns around potential exposure of community members, on March 9, all schools in the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union closed.

According to sources at the WSWSU, the schools in Halifax, Readsboro, Stamford, Whitingham, and Wilmington were closed “out of an abundance of caution” on Monday in order to gather information and disinfect the facilities and buses.

Schools reopened the next day after a two-hour delay.

In a March 9 press release, Windham Southwest Superintendent Barbara Anne Komons-Montroll wrote, “WSWSU school districts understand and share the public concerns about COVID-19 (coronavirus).”

“We are in active communication with the Vermont Department of Health and the Agency of Education,” she continued. “WSWSU has set up a Task Force of administrators, nurses and the central office team to plan around COVID-19 in our region.”

Komons-Montroll added that the supervisory union received information on March 8, “that there was some level of exposure of students and families in our communities to individuals who are presumptive positive for COVID-19.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), patients labeled as presumptive positive have “at least one respiratory specimen that tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 at a state or local laboratory.”

Komons-Montroll wrote that the supervisory union is following the Vermont Department of Health’s guidance, recommended by the Agency of Education, for helping to keep illnesses like COVID-19 from spreading.

These recommendations include washing or sanitizing hands upon entering schools, before meals, and after using restrooms.

The health entities also recommend not attending schools or school functions if guardians or children feel sick.

Before students arrived on March 10, Komons-Montroll wrote that teachers and staff were to meet “in order to share information, new expectations for sanitation, and building procedures for limiting potential exposure.”

“Keeping everyone as safe as possible is our priority,” wrote Komons-Montroll. “We will continue to work with the Vermont Department of Health and the Agency of Education and will provide additional communication as we receive more information.”

According to Vermont Public Radio, two schools in Williston also closed on March 9 due to a staff member being potentially exposed to the virus while staying at a hotel out of state.

Keep it clean

Holiday said in the short term, school staff will focus on deep cleaning “high contact” surfaces: areas that people touch the most, such as tables, light switches, and buses.

The staff will also try to ensure that staff, guardians, and kids who feel the early symptoms of the virus stay home. These symptoms, according to the CDC, include fever, cough, or shortness of breath.

The CDC also recommends people take these steps to keep themselves and others healthy:

• Wash hands with soap and water — often, and for at least 20 seconds. Doing so is specifically important after blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing, using the toilet, or before eating or preparing food.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.

• Stay home when sick.

• Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then dispose of tissue.

Holiday said she is also meeting with administration, transportation vendors, and food preparation services about steps the supervisory union should take if schools need to close for an extended period.

Teachers have a good idea of what students are experiencing outside of the classroom and whether families are traveling, Holiday said. The schools will reach out to families if they have any concerns.

If students need to be out of school for a long time, teachers and families can work together to ensure students receive assignments either through the internet or the mail.

If schools need to close for an extended time, teachers can share lectures and assignments via the internet, she said.

For students without the internet at home, their school will make other arrangements.

Holiday said WSESU will follow the directives of the state Agency of Education and Vermont Department of Health regarding closures and to gather the latest information.

Any families with medically fragile children or family members should follow the advice of their doctors, Holiday said. If the doctor says stay home, stay home.

Avoiding crowds?

“My immediate concern is what to do about large gatherings,” Holiday said.

For example, the school has an upcoming music concert scheduled. Regarding sports, the schools are in between seasons, so that’s not a huge concern at the moment, she said.

What to do about an upcoming trip to New York City is a bigger concern for Holiday. It’s the type of situation where staff have a harder time controlling who students come into contact with, she added — and that could prove impossible to determine if the Vermont Department of Health ends up trying to trace the spread of illness under those circumstances.

The school principals, Holiday, and staff at the Agency of Education will be discussing the trip over the next few days.

Any school-wide messages and updates will go through the same SchoolMessenger program that delivers alerts to the school community about issues such as snow days. This system relies on families supplying their most recent phone numbers, Holiday said, urging families to provide up-to-date contact information to schools.

As far as the March 17 annual school district meeting at the BUHS gym, Holiday is working with Principal Steve Perrin to see if the gym can be arranged in a different way, one that could keep more space between people.

On another note, Holiday is also concerned about the ramifications of the district’s responses to the virus and the consequences for students.

For example, if a school needs to be closed for a long time, some children won’t have access to services that they rely on, she said.

Holiday’s biggest concern is food.

Many children depend on the meals provided by the school because their families are struggling with food insecurity.

Holiday has started exploring ways to set up systems so children can continue receiving services — such as meals — even if the school closes long-term.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #552 (Wednesday, March 11, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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