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School district, students adapt to a crisis

For families turned upside down by COVID-19, educators rapidly figure out how to serve kids remotely, from teaching to food

BRATTLEBORO—Rows of brown paper lunch bags sit on a folding table under a pop-up tent behind Fire Station 2 in West Brattleboro as Academy School kindergarten teacher Maureen Parzych pulls additional meals from a cooler in anticipation of a swarm of students and families.

The packed breakfasts and lunches are part of Windham Southeast School District’s (WSESD’s) food distribution program.

As schools and other community spaces close in an attempt to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, community members seek to ensure that neighbors have their needs met. For schools, this means providing breakfasts and lunches to all students under the age of 18. The first day of distribution was March 18.

One student arrives wearing a green dragon costume that looks much like comfortable pajamas. He tells the teachers that his mother dared him to wear it. Many students arrive clinging to their parent’s hand.

“Hi, honey! How are you?” calls Parzych to one little girl, who, like many others, runs to her teachers ready for a now-dangerous traditional embrace.

“You know what, stop right there,” Parzych says, pivoting her hand into a “halt” position.

“We’re practicing our air hugs,” says Academy Principal Kelly Dias. “Do you know how to do that?”

Together, the adults and their student open their arms wide and hug the air.

Air hugs. One of many adaptations the school community has adopted since COIVD-19 was declared an emergency in Vermont earlier this month.

A big undertaking

As of March 23, the school district’s staff and volunteers provided meals to 1,823 students in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney, according to Superintendent Lyle Holiday.

This meal delivery wouldn’t be possible without the F.M. Kuzmeskus bus company and “unbelievable volunteers, teachers, and paraprofessionals,” Holiday said in a Monday morning phone interview.

The meals are dropped at central community points like Station 2 or Dummerston Center, as well as drop points along the various bus routes. Holiday said that regardless of where a student lives, they or their family should find it easy to get to a meal site.

Holiday said all children in the district younger than 18 are eligible for the meals, even if they don’t attend one of the local schools. Families seeking meals may register for the program through a form on the WSESD’s COVID-19 page at wsesu.org/covid-19.html.

Once a family has registered, they will choose their pickup location. Holiday requests that families stick with this original location.

Staff and volunteers start preparing and packing meals at 5 a.m., the superintendent said, and by mid-morning the meals are usually ready to go.

Holiday thanked all the volunteers and organizers for pulling together the distribution system from scratch and ensuring that families have food. She praised Ali West and Justin McCardle from Fresh Picks Cafe, the food service provider in the district.

Putney Central School’s food service team is also packing meals, Holiday said. She thanked Putney Central’s Sustainability Coordinator and Food Service Co-Director Steve Hed, as well as Principal Herve Pelletier.

Jon Sessions, assistant principal at Academy School, also spent hours organizing volunteers and staff, Holiday said.

Becca Shepard from F.M. Kuzmeskus, the company which contracts with the district, also spent “hours and hours” reorganizing the bus schedule and routes, Holiday added.

As a result of their “amazing work,” a distribution system swiftly fell into place, said Holiday, who described the experience as an educational one for the whole school district.

“It’s not just about food,” she said. “We are learning that we have some good systems in place but that we need others as well.”

One example? Systems for providing child care for essential workers, and remote learning.

“We’re thinking of each system as a project,” Holiday said.

Each system has a project manager who facilitates communication and ensures the district isn’t duplicating efforts.

“We want to make sure we’re in touch with our families as much as we can be,” Holiday said, noting that teachers will reach out to families. The superintendent said that counselors are also available.

Holiday also wanted to remind the community that, during this time of social distancing, the schools and their playgrounds are closed.

On March 24, Gov. Phil Scott amplified efforts to “minimize all unnecessary activities outside the home to slow the spread of this virus and protect the public,” according to a press statement from the governor’s office.

“This is a public health crisis for everyone in the community,” Holiday said.

Still figuring things out

Last Wednesday, the teachers arrived at 6 a.m. to staff the Station 2 food distribution point.

It’s an emotional time for them. They miss their students.

Parzych, Dias, and fifth-grade teacher Chris Szpila wipe away tears as they wave goodbye to students.

“We’re grieving the loss of their life at school,” Dias said. “Emotionally, we’ve just been trying to reach out and do things like read aloud online and make videos of songs that we sing at All School Sing.”

“That’s been the most important priority for us — just stay connected with our kids, because they’re so young,” she said.

Health and safety have been considerations at every stage of the preparation process.

Custodians disinfected the Chromebook laptop computers that would go home with the kids. Books have also been wiped down, and the photocopiers were also disinfected between uses as teachers made up activity packets, the educators explained.

Parzych said teachers have reached out to all the families and asked if they have any special circumstances that could be addressed, to see if any are working in health care so the teachers could offer child care, “and really just to find out what parents need.”

“Some parents just need someone to talk to,” she said. “Their children are sad, and they’re missing school, and we’re missing them,” she said, tearing up.

School districts across Windham County pulled together their closure plans quickly. Even if some educators had already started planning for this possibility a month ago, the way the response to COVID-19 has evolved has required some quick pivoting.

“I think we’re still figuring it out,” Szpila said. “I think there’s a lot of communication amongst staff at Academy and the district, and we’re trying to discover technologies that are going to support the kids and help them be successful.”

“There’s also the fine line of not wanting to overwhelm parents because they still have to work or they’re out of work, Parzych added. “And to take over the entire educational program of their child is a lot, so we want to make sure we’re supportive and helpful and a resource but not burdening them.”

“At the federal level, and then the state level, and then from Superintendent Lyle [Holiday] down to us, it’s been a constant updating, because it’s so rapidly changing as far as guidelines and what we need to do make sure we’re being safe for ourselves and for our families,” Dias said.

Dias also considers what the long-term impact might be for her young pupils who have been missing so much school.

“We’re really trying to figure how to replicate face-to-face learning, and that’s really hard at such a young age. So we’re looking at different platforms online. But I think there’s no way we can make it equal to what they learn at school — and socially they learn so much,” she said.

Teachers offer tips for kids at home

For parents, the educators said to keep learning simple and to allow for enough outside play time as well as “free choice time.” Parzych also advises parents to talk about what kids have learned.

Parents shouldn’t need to feel as if they must introduce new information that feels overwhelming for student or parent, they said.

They added that now is a perfect time to allow kids to dive deep into the subjects, topics, or projects that they feel passionate about.

“It may be a good a opportunity to learn life skills around the house,” Dias said. Some examples: chores; recipes and baking, practice mindfulness through yoga.

Dias also recommends allowing kids to chat with their school friends via video conferencing, “because kids can’t always verbalize that they’re feeling such a different schedule, but when they see their friends, they’re really happy.”

Szpila said that expecting families to cram a whole week of classroom learning into a pandemic-created homeschool situation is unfair.

“This can give kids a chance to develop independence and follow a passion they may have,” she added.

Some suggested activities for kids include reading, going outside to play, building a spaceship or a fort out of cardboard, or being creative and trying arts and crafts projects.

Parzych said the school is there to support families, and parents or guardians should reach out if they need anything.

“I think it’s important that they know that we love them and we miss them very much,” she said.

“And I think to remember to be calm and to love each other,” Szpila added. “The calmer we are, the better for everybody. Even as adults if we’re feeling very stressed out, I think it’s very important that we continue to put a calm face forward.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #554 (Wednesday, March 25, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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