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Kelly Dias/Special to The Commons

Spacing for social distancing has been a priority in arranging classroom furniture for fall classes at Academy School in West Brattleboro.

Special section

Educating hand-in-hand with uncertainty

As the new school year begins, teachers and administrators at schools throughout the county take the semester one month at a time

BRATTLEBORO—An astronaut might greet Academy School students on Sept. 8, their first day back to the building.

“We have an astronaut costume,” said Principal Kelly Dias, who hasn’t hugged her students since Gov. Phil Scott’s executive public health order closed schools in March. “I might wear it so I can hug everyone when they arrive.”

Missed hugs and empty classrooms might seem small given the scope of the larger COVID-19 pandemic. Yet they’re also emblematic of the social, emotional, and academic roles schools play in students’ lives.

“Having to stop a kid in their tracks when they’re running up to hug you is heartbreaking,” she said.

Typically, Dias and Assistant Principal Jon Sessions greet students with their choice of a hug, a high five, or a handshake. Maybe this September students will use a dance greeting. Or maybe an air hug.

“It’s all I think about every time I picture the kids coming back to school — me standing at that doorway in the front of the building and hugging every single kid,” she said. “It’s so hard. I have to mentally change my frame of reference.”

Looking back and ahead

As local schools reopen this month, teachers and administrators reflect on the past five months and the weeks ahead.

Each school has chosen different models of remote or in-person education, depending on the schools’ needs.

For starters, according to Dias, Academy School and others in the supervisory union are taking the school year a month at a time.

For September, students will attend classes using either a hybrid — part classroom, part remote — model or staying home to learn online in an all-remote model. The supervisory union will reevaluate these models in October.

At Academy, students have divided into different cohorts, or pods. Students will receive instruction either through an all-remote or a hybrid model that alternates in-person and remote instruction.

Approximately 30 percent of Academy students have opted for the all-remote model.

An example of the hybrid model would entail student cohort, or pod “A,” receiving in-person instruction on Monday and Tuesday while pod “B” studies remotely. On Thursdays and Fridays the pods switch, with “A” receiving remote instruction and “B” in-person. In most cases, students will have the same teacher throughout the week.

The building closes on Wednesdays for deep cleaning while teachers receive support and professional development.

Building and responding to community

Dias spent most of her summer planning for the fall. The principals for the Brattleboro elementary schools met regularly to ensure their preparations remained aligned. One consideration was whether it would be possible to align the elementary schools’ schedules with the schedules of the middle and high school.

So many families rely on older siblings for child care, she said. Yet it couldn’t happen.

“A lot of the work has been two steps forward and three steps back,” she said. “We’d think we had a plan that’s going to be successful and support everyone’s needs, and then we’d find a barrier.”

Dias and her team have focused on training teachers on remote learning. They have also focused on supporting students’ social and emotional health — something that is as important as academics for young learners, she said.

Building a school community when some kids are in the classroom and others are remote will be a challenge, she said.

Teachers have offered creative solutions to the community-building question. According to Dias, some have planned “driveway meetings” with students. The kindergarten teachers held virtual meetings with their students over the summer.

Prior to opening day, the kindergarten teachers have organized a “Meet and Peek.” The kindergarteners will have a chance to come to Academy, meet their teachers, and peek through the windows at their classrooms, Dias said.

For the purposes of planning, Dias and the teachers are assuming that all the students are emotionally and academically halfway through their previous school year. Teachers have prepared for gaps in learning as well as new behaviors that have formed during the pandemic.

Dias felt grateful for all the Academy teachers and support staff. They have never given up or stopped trying to support the students, she said.

Consequently, she knows that much of her job during the coming school year — whatever form it ends up taking — will entail supporting faculty and staff to maintain healthy work-life balances.

Blown away, in a good way

Andrew Skarzynski, the superintendent in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU), is starting his first school year as head of the district.

Skarzynski, who was the principal of Rutland Intermediate School and has 23 years of experience in education, succeeds Lyle Holiday, who retired at the end of the 2019-20 school year.

“For me, it’s been a fascinating transition, but there are great people here with such a depth of experience, and that has made it a little easier for me,” he said. “The goal was to hit the ground learning, but I have had to hit the ground running because of the pandemic.”

With an estimated enrollment in the WSESU schools of 2,253 students for the current school year, Skarzynski said that nearly 600 students will be doing all-remote classes when school starts on Sept. 8.

The remainder of the WSESU students will be on a hybrid schedule, with K-8 students attending classes two days a week, and students in grades 9-12 attending one day a week. On the other days, classes will be done remotely.

“I’m not surprised so many families have opted for remote learning,” said Skarzynski. “There is certainly a level of anxiety, especially when you see and hear the stories of what other states are going through in reopening their schools.”

While the situation is dire in some parts of the United States, Skarzynski said he believes Vermont “is in a great position to reopen its schools,” due to its low COVID-19 case count, its effective protocols for testing and contact tracing when infections do turn up, and its experienced leadership in the schools around the state.

“The focus is on creating the best learning environment for the students,” he said. “The whole country has pivoted to remote instruction, and I don’t think we are going to see the end of remote learning for some time to come.”

In the short time Skarzynski has been in Windham Southeast, he said he was “blown away” by the support for the schools in the district.

“Our families have been incredibly supportive,” he said.

And after months of not seeing one another in person, Skarzynski said that teachers and staff are “looking forward to seeing the students again.”

Learning a few tools well

“I can honestly say, we hit the ground running in July,” said Deb Kardane, curriculum coordinator for WSESU.

Kardane is one of the people who helps teachers teach.

Teachers never stop learning, she said, but the pandemic has required rapid skills-building around remote teaching.

Most of the understanding of how best to use technology in remote learning has evolved in higher-education or homeschooling settings, Kardane said. These two scenarios, however, come with built-in assumptions that might not apply to elementary schools.

For example, in higher education, students arrive already having developed a variety of social and academic abilities. In homeschooling, parents usually provide in-person support, according to Kardane.

“We’re trying to figure out, ‘All right, so what does this look like in a developmentally appropriate younger student model?’” Kardane said.

She spent the summer coordinating with educators to reflect on lessons learned in the spring and then quickly apply them to the fall.

Many remote teaching tools have emerged since the pandemic, she said. For Windham Southeast schools, Kardane said she is focusing on fine-tuning teachers’ skills around a few tools rather than adopting new tools.

She said that for teachers, the best practice “is to get really good at using a few tools, and the same thing is true for kids,” she said. “It’s not helpful for them to always have to learn a new tool.”

When students feel comfortable with their online tools, then they can put their energy into learning, she said. On a side note, teachers will also send materials — art supplies, math supports — for kids to use at home as well.

Kardane said the cloud of the pandemic came with a couple of silver linings. The first is renewed communication with families. Without their engagement, the remote learning would not — could not — work, she said.

“We are all still learning, and that’s true nationally,” she said. “We all need to stay on the same side, because we’re all looking out for the best interest of our kids.”

Next, the accessibility to colleagues through video conferencing has “skyrocketed our ability to work as teams from a distance.”

“It used to be, if you wanted to have a collaborative meeting, everyone had to get there,” she said. “The amount of time that took was prohibitive.”

Supporting the whole school community

Windham Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Bill Anton said that the pandemic has resulted in stress for the community as a whole.

Anton and his leadership team have tried to schedule support time across the entire school community, including students, teachers, support staff, custodians, and families. For example, the schools will use Wednesdays for planning and other work with educators and staff.

“One of the tenets of practicing trauma-transformed schooling is that a stressed workforce cannot assist a stressed student,” he said. “And so you must look out for the adults so that they can look out for the students.”

Anton added that the pandemic has forced the union to look at its systems and relationships.

“You really find out in a pandemic whether all the work that you’ve done previously was authentic,” he said.

Authentic work, according to Anton, means that relationships are strong enough to handle uncertainty or uncomfortable conversations.

He said each of the four school districts within WCSU have made different back-to-school choices.

“So there’s no universality,” he said. “There’s some crossover, and there’s some Venn diagrams that are similar, but each district is approaching it a little bit differently based on their individual circumstances.”

• Windham Elementary School: Four days in-person instruction. Wednesdays are for cleaning, remote learning, and professional development. The school expects 8 to 11 in-person students, said Anton.

• Marlboro School: A low-density, hybrid model. This decision is in part due to work needed on the school’s HVAC system. According to Anton, 80 to 90 percent of students will begin the school year fully remote. Teachers and administration will also use “special opportunities” in the area for in-person instruction. Marlboro intends to expand its outdoor learning and ask older students to conduct outdoor field research, he said.

• River Valleys School District (Dover and Wardsboro): Is opening for four days of in-person instruction. Wednesdays are reserved for cleaning and professional development. Approximately 150 students attend the River Valleys schools, of which approximately 40 have elected to use an all-remote option offered by the district. River Valleys is undergoing repair and upgrade work to the HVAC system, Anton said.

• West River Modified Union Education District (NewBrook, Jamaica, and Townshend Elementary schools, and Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School): These schools will start the school year all-remote while the district works on the school buildings’ HVAC systems, Anton said. Teachers and administrators at all the schools are also planning for small groups to meet for outdoor events or instruction, he added.

“So that’s really important to know as a teacher, that you’ve got that time throughout the year [Wednesdays] because you’ve got to prepare your environment for in-person, you’ve got to prepare it for hybrid, and you’ve got to prepare for remote,” Anton said.

Most of the WCSU schools are also focusing on repairs or upgrades to their HVAC systems. Anton said the work needed across the entire supervisory union averages about $500,000.

In part because of this work, Windham Elementary and Marlboro School plan to take advantage of outdoor education in September, Anton said.

Anton called the Windham Central Supervisory Union board “prescient” when its members decided last year to hire a director of operations.

According to Anton, the new director, Chris Medina, has handled building and safety logistics at a supervisory-district-wide level. This includes ordering personal protective equipment (PPE) for all the schools in the union, coordinating transportation, hiring custodians, and ensuring all the buildings meet the state’s health guidelines.

“I think throughout these challenging processes, you have seen everybody stepping up,” Anton said. “The community is very supportive, very respectful.”

“All the professionals, the teachers, the principals, the custodians, food service — everybody is doing their part and more to try to make it work for the community,” he said.

Creating peeps

Dummerston School teacher Molly Stoner said that for her, some of the uncertainty from the spring semester hung around until approximately a week ago, when she received her final teaching placements.

Though some of the teachers will oversee remote classrooms, Stoner chose to not apply. Instead, she will teach in-person, four days a week to two different cohorts of students.

The lead teacher for a group of third- and fourth-graders, she said she is also collaborating with another teacher, who will handle the cohorts’ remote learning days.

“For me, it felt grounding to be back [in the classroom], to hear colleagues’ voices, even if I wasn’t in physical proximity to them,” Stoner said. “Teaching is a highly collaborative kind of work environment.”

In Dummerston, for the hybrid model, the week is broken into two pods. For example, “pod A” will be in the classroom on Monday and Tuesdays and “pod B” on Thursdays and Fridays.

Stoner and her co-teacher met several times to create work systems so they can coordinate their communication and curriculums. Stoner is also helping plan and create curriculum for other teachers who want the extra support.

“We’re just trying to make our jobs manageable,” she said.

The pandemic has altered Stoner’s ratio of planning to intuition, she said. In previous years, she has relied on her intuition and group feedback to change her teaching plan in the moment. The addition of remote learning has made that classroom-based routine less helpful.

“I think the kids really need to know what’s expected each day of the week,” she said. “So it’s really challenged me to plan in a weekly way rather than plan for a day allowing for change within that day.”

The pandemic’s uncertainty has felt hard at times, Stoner said. That uncertainty has also brought new skills and new challenges, and these have felt exciting for Stoner. Her sense of excitement has pulled her through the harder moments.

Another piece of excitement is being able to return to her early teaching days, which focused on project-based education and outdoor learning.

Stoner said some parents had created a trails system near the Dummerston School. She is planning a whole outdoor project where students will create “peeps,” little villages with their own economies, throughout the trails.

She feels grateful for her colleagues and community as a whole and hopes people remain patient and curious throughout the duration of the pandemic.

One supportive adult away from success

Ricky Davidson, the student assistance program counselor (SAPC) for Brattleboro Union High School, said he feels safe in his office. Along with arranging his office so that he and students can sit at least 6 feet apart, the school has also provided a plexiglass screen.

He said that friends who work in other school districts and in other states have asked him if he’s worried about returning to BUHS.

“No, they’re taking such precautions that I feel everything that can be done is being done,” Davidson said. “When I meet with a kid, we have to be in my office with a mask on, the screen between us, and at least 6 feet between us.”

Students needed a mix of emotional and academic support during the upheaval that was the spring semester, he said.

“We were talking about academic stuff and, all of a sudden, they would start talk about something social-emotional,” Davidson said. “Or, we were going to engage and have a conversation because of social-emotional stuff and partway through it, they were like, ‘I’m not understanding this one thing in algebra.”

Davidson’s job focuses on the lives of students as they unfold outside the classroom. His focus is in the area of addiction and student support, or what he describes as “supporting kids to be successful in school.”

He said he used the summer to prepare for the fall and some of the new challenges that students might experience.

Last spring, schools had less time to prepare, he said. After the buildings closed in March, a lot of Davidson’s time went to helping students navigate remote learning, staying organized, time management, and problem solving. Sometimes his support included families.

This fall, he anticipates renewing relationships with many of the same students, but he is also aware that there is “an entire class of ninth graders coming in that most people don’t know.”

Based on recent conversations with students, Davidson believes that they’ve adjusted somewhat to the overall sense of uncertainty accompanying the pandemic. If they’re being honest, he said, they also feel a mix of nervousness and excitement. Many haven’t seen their friends in months.

He counts a lot of supportive adults in this community whom kids can turn to, and he said those supportive adults are crucial to kids’ success.

Davidson added that many students have demonstrated their resilience during the pandemic — and that their strength gives him hope for the rest of the community.

Anton said that it feels as if he and his colleges are still in a learning curve. Rather than having mastered any aspect of the pandemic, they have gotten better at preparing and responding, he said, adding that the whole community is stressed.

“We are learning every single day,” Anton said. “But we are getting more comfortable with the uncertainty, and once you recognize that the pandemic is in control, then you start to think about what are the things that we can control.”

“We can’t control the pandemic, but what we can control is how we prepare our buildings, how we prepare ourselves, how we get better at certain skills like online teaching, how we communicate to our families, how we put emphasis on social and emotional learning.”

Stoner adds, “I keep saying to myself: the waters are muddy.”

“I need to not fight the mud because it’s there — I can’t change that part,” she added. “What I can do is try to learn how to navigate through muddy water and then appreciate the clear spells when they’re there.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #577 (Wednesday, September 2, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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