No crystal ball
Academy School third-graders cook and warm their hands by the school’s new firepit, part of the equipment obtained this year to facilitate more outdoor classrooms and on-hands learning during the pandemic.

No crystal ball

A year into the pandemic, schools begin planning for full-time, in-person school, assessing lingering effects of the pandemic — including some that are positive

Amid the difficulties of a school year like no other, educators, students, and parents agree on several important points.

While this year has certainly been challenging, they say that potential lingering adverse effects on students are being addressed.

And even so, they say, it has brought a few silver linings.

School officials have praised their students and their families for resilience, patience, and flexibility for making a difficult situation work for all.

Reopening schools to full in-person learning remains a priority both at the state and federal levels.

In his State of the State address in January, Gov. Phil Scott said he was making it a priority to get all students back into classrooms before the end of the school year.

In February, U.S. President Joe Biden set “an ambitious but achievable goal” of reopening most elementary and middle schools before the end of his first 100 days in office.

As it happens, nobody can tell exactly when that milestone will take place. Many educators are presuming that a normal school opening will take place in September, in a world where Vermonters are vaccinated.

But nobody knows for sure.

Ted Fisher, the state Agency of Education director of communications and legislative affairs, says essentially this is the plan, but “I don't have a crystal ball.”

As schools in Windham County prepare for a return to the classroom, The Commons takes a look at some of the issues facing educators, students, and their families as they continue to make their way through the unknown.

'More eager to learn than ever'

Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU) Curriculum Coordinator Deb Kardane says navigating the vicissitudes of education during COVID-19 has “100 percent” affected her work.

For educators, who have been “under rapid fire” for over a year, “we've all become very good at making flexible decisions; pivoting has become the norm,” she says.

Responses to the pandemic are varied: “There are families that have not gone to the grocery store at all and families that have gotten kids back to school as soon as they could,” Kardane says. The students in those families are likewise going to have differences in readjusting to a conventional school day.

“We're definitely going to pay close attention to the kids who haven't been in school and who haven't felt what it's like to be around a crowd,” she says.

“The gaps are bigger and not just academic, but experiential,” she adds, and those differences are going to show up in the classroom.

Kardane points out that teachers are very much used to reintroducing routines at the start of a “normal” school year when students come back from summer vacations.

“So there's some experience under everyone's belt. We're trying to be mindful that this is not a year when all will be back to normal.”

“We're looking at three years to get the kids to where we can compare them to grade levels, and that's nationwide. So next year we look at what we need to prioritize,” Kardane says.

That means prioritizing “deep learning” over “surface learning,” she says.

Currently, families have the option for their children to learn remotely or via hybrid learning - going to school in person several days a week and learning from home on the other days, so schools can deep clean classrooms and hallways and so teachers can collaborate and receive added professional development to aid their increased use of technology.

According to the Agency of Education, in February, 14 percent of students statewide were studying remotely full-time, while 34 percent of students were physically present in school. The remaining 52 percent were participating in a hybrid learning model.

Those figures vary significantly when separated by grade level.

“I would anticipate some conversations in families - where members haven't received shots or there is a fragile health situation - worrying about their child coming back in person,” says Academy School Principal Kelly Dias.

“But truly what we thought were going to be the biggest obstacles - 'Oh, kids aren't going to be able to wear masks' - they had no trouble at all with. And every morning the kids show up and are skipping and joyful and they're so happy to be here and the building is alive with happy kids just learning and doing.”

Some kids, of course, are more affected than others when it comes to the consequences of learning in isolation.

“Our grandson is a very social person, so school at home has been hard for him,” Lynn Forest of Brookline says. “Classwork has not gone well, and he might have to repeat this last year.”

It also bothers Dias when people presume that, as a whole, kids are never going to catch up from the disruption of the pandemic.

“And that's just not what I see,” she says. “Kids are happy and healthy and more eager to learn than ever. I wouldn't be surprised if our kids are really not that far below grade level next year. My daughter learned to read via Zoom, and it's been pretty neat to watch.”

“My favorite kindergarten quote is, 'I like wearing a mask all day; it makes my face all cozy,'” says Kardane. “Who would have thought?”

Challenges aplenty, but also hope

Parent Viv Woodland of Brattleboro ties together a number of concerns about the well-being of young children learning during these tumultuous months.

“As a parent of a 5-year-old, I have been told time and again that kids need consistency in their schedules and in the rules or boundaries we establish,” she says. “Yet nothing about the management of this pandemic has been consistent; it couldn't be. Rules about who to play with, where, and with or without masks have shifted many times for our family, as we adapted to new advice from leaders.”

To Woodland, that chaos has persisted through the school district's management of the crisis.

“The younger students in WSESD have been 'back to four days a week' on paper for two months now, but have yet to actually experience a week of four days in the classroom,” Woodland says, noting that “the makeup of the classes themselves, some teacher assignments, and the desk layout in each room also changed mid-year.

“Add to this the general tension and fear of something that we can't see, and I worry that children will struggle to relax, to be themselves, and to take healthy and creative risks for some time.

“How can we help them grieve when the loss is ongoing?”

Chloe Learey, executive director of the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Brattleboro, which provides early care and education to children ages 6 weeks through age 5 and a spectrum of support services to children and families in the area, believes the challenges for next year will cross ages.

It will also “be different depending on age and other factors, including whether families have been living on the margin - poverty, access to technology, mental health of parents, food security, etc.,” she says.

“We know that a strong social/emotional foundation is needed for children to be available for academic learning, and we need to make sure that foundation is shored up so we can address any regression in academics,” Learey adds.

Easing back to the classroom full time, she says, will require “focus on the social/emotional foundation first, be flexible, creative, and responsive in helping children figure out how to navigate again. This means supporting the teachers and other adults, too.”

Bob Thibault, Leland & Gray Union Middle & High School principal and president of the Vermont Principals Association, is optimistic.

“I believe the impact of COVID on our students will be wide; however, I don't think all of the effects are necessarily negative,” he says.

“Many of our students have experienced great gains in some of the non-academic skill areas, like perseverance, creativity, and resilience,” he continues. “But because learning is really a social endeavor, I do believe that best learning for the vast majority of our students happens in a live room with other people.”

He views the challenges of helping students “catch up” academically as an “opportunity.”

“I don't think we should view this from a deficit model. With something as global as a pandemic, all of us are in the same boat.” Thibault points out.

“We should really think of this as an opportunity to shift our thinking about what is truly important for our students to know and be able to do,” he says.

Thibault is most concerned about the “widening gaps for our already marginalized students.”

“I know that we need more mental health supports,” he says.

“Our school counselors are pretty strapped right now, even with only half the kids here at a time,” Thibault adds. “After 11 months of, in some cases, significant physical isolation, there is a lot of anxiety for kids being around large groups of people right now.”

“We know that lots of our students were isolated in environments that were far less than ideal, both educationally and from a social-emotional level,” he adds.

Planning for a new normal

Vermont schools are currently required to submit “recovery plans” to the state, with a preliminary plan due April 15 and a finalized plan in June.

The plans are not unlike the customary continuous learning plans submitted each year that include addressing the “buckets” of social/emotional health and well-being, family engagement, and academics.

“For the kids who have been remote, they will have been out for a year and a half,” say Dias. “Just the thought of coming back to the building will be a milestone for them.”

Dias looks at how kids might perceive their return to the building: Why is it safe now when before it wasn't? Why is it safe to see my friends now? Why is it safe now to eat in the cafeteria?

“So we're trying to be really thoughtful to explain to kids all the hand washing and table washing and all,” the principal says.

“We are able to do most of what we used to do,” Dias says.

She says students have always been at different levels of learning, but that exists now “more than ever.”

“And our teachers, by nature, go above and beyond to meet that, but we're trying to take a mindful approach to know what we need to do to have all kids access their grade-level core content,” Dias says.

“This time, we are trying to prevent additional special education referrals of kids who have maybe had high absence or they didn't have the support they needed [at home],” she adds.

While under normal circumstances students undergo three benchmark tests per year to measure their grade levels, Dias says other factors are always considered, and the school offers a lot of outreach, including extra help for kids.

But she does not anticipate a return to the classroom full-time to be a situation where massive tutoring will be necessary.

“If every kid needs a tutor, then we're not doing our job in the classroom,” she said, noting that when teachers deliver core content, everyone has to be able to access it so that teachers can look at that and confer with team members.

“It works pretty well,” Dias says. “It's a lot of learning, and it's a lot of work for teachers.”

One lesson of the pandemic, says Learey, is that “every child has access to different resources which impact how they can access education, and it is important to know that context in order to create an optimal learning experience for them.”

“We have more tools for truly individualized learning. I also hope we can maintain flexibility in the education system versus a one-size-fits-all model. Remote and hybrid learning is not really an effective option for early education.”

Silver linings

For all the disruption, Dias describes the 2020-21 school year at Academy School as “kind of an incredible year - pretty magical in many ways.”

“We've been able to get outside more and more, which has been a goal for years,” she says. “We've been able to purchase outdoor material and tents and fire pits and to expand our classroom outdoors, and that's something we will hold on to.”

It's clear that several bright spots like this one have emerged despite the undeniable hardships of pandemic education.

Engagement of families is one silver lining, many educators note.

“We've forged these relationships with families that can be kind of hard to get a hold of,” Dias says. “And everyone has lost our privacy, so we have this new window and see 'Oh, here's my cat walking across the screen.'”

“Parents have become empowered to be involved in their kids' learning, and we're eager to embrace that,” says Kardane. “And I think in the long run that will strengthen things immensely.”

She notes another lingering positive effect: “the tremendous learning we've all done around technology and how that's really going to empower teachers in the classroom.”

Admiring the creative thinking that goes into delivering instruction remotely and filming videos, Kardane says that a number of teachers have really learned how to “flip the classroom.”

That's a classroom model where instead of teaching material to the whole group, teachers instruct students one-on-one. Then, the collective classroom time together is used to create what the Flipped Learning Network calls a “dynamic, interactive learning environment where the educator guides students as they apply concepts and engage creatively in the subject matter.”

In other words, when a group of kids is on Zoom, “you use your face-to-face time for interaction and questioning and processing that actual content,” Kardane says.

Another bright spot: Many students also have a new appreciation of going to school.

“They're happy to be with their friends and teachers,” Dias says.

Principal Scotty Tabachnick of NewBrook Elementary School in Newfane is also optimistic while not minimizing the issues to be addressed as students return to the classroom.

“I believe that all children are unique and that each family has had different experiences during the pandemic,” he says.

“Academic and social gaps will result from these differences, but these gaps are no different from those we experience as educators during a typical school year. It is just a matter of degree,” he says.

And throughout the pandemic, learning continues unabated.

“We are teaching children how to be safe during and after a pandemic. We are teaching them to distance and to mask, which I believe will be part of our society for the near future. We are teaching our littles to share, to play together safely, and to wait their turns. We will continue to assess our students in English [language arts] and math three times a year, and then rely upon our universal instruction and our small group instruction to close gaps and teach skills that have not been picked up.”

Windham Southeast Superintendent Andrew Skrzynski says that the pandemic has given kids “a variety of learning experiences that have allowed them to enhance their capabilities in self-advocacy, time management, planning, and other executive functioning skills.”

These skills “will serve our schools well as we navigate the complexities of our recovery,” he says.

And the success of that is attributable in a very large part to the teachers who have held together classrooms, both physical and virtual.

“Our teachers are the unsung heroes as they worked tirelessly to basically start over learning how to teach,” Thibault says. “I am incredibly proud of the work they did.”

Older students struggling more

For some students, however, losing the social, emotional, and academic role schools play in students' lives has taken a greater toll.

“Sixth-grade-through-high-school-age students have had more of a decreased level of happiness and an increase in depression due to feeling lonely and isolated,” says Dias. “They don't like sitting all day doing work on Zoom alone.”

And these older students are better able to articulate, for better or for worse, how this pandemic has affected their routine, their lives, and their education.

Leland & Gray senior Marcus Pratt, 17, who hopes to attend Castleton University or Springfield College in the fall, is one who made the best of the situation.

“My experience in school during the pandemic has been underwhelming,” he says. “It's sad not seeing a lot of people, but I'm just glad to be back.”

“I missed seeing my friends, all the teachers,” he says. “I think my education suffered because I didn't get to learn as much because we couldn't cover as much. My social interaction didn't suffer too much because I still saw a few of my friends once in awhile, but not all of them.

“I don't think my education suffering could be made up for because I'm already out of the classes, but I think I learned what was necessary to continue onto other classes,” Pratt says.

He thinks the pandemic has “brought people's moods down a lot.”

“Mainly, students don't seem that happy, but the teachers are just glad to be back in school and staying positive,” Pratt observes.

Windham Central Supervisory Union (WCSU) Superintendent William Anton is optimistic that the long-term adverse effects on students will be minimal.

“For our elementary students, we have been in-person for four days a week for the greater part of the school year. So, although the environment is new - masking, distancing, hand washing, et cetera - the students have had a pretty consistent routine of social contact and academic learning,” he says.

“It is different social contact, but the teachers, staff, and principals have been so dedicated to creating a community of safety, respect, and joy, that I believe the lingering effects will be minimal,” the superintendent says.

“Students have worked really hard to appreciate the limited contact they have now, discipline is way down, and I think some positive lingering effects will be a greater appreciation for more typical social contact when it is allowed,” he points out.

As to the loss of iconic high school moments, Anton says, “This is real, and this is hard.”

“All the things that students imagined - prom, graduation, bonfires, pep rallies, music and theater performances - have all been eliminated or altered during this time,” he says.

“But again, I am amazed by the perspective of students. They are disappointed that what they imagined may not come to fruition, but their positive attitude about appreciating what is possible is inspiring,” Anton observes.

He praises the support of the Leland & Gray community.

“They are constantly trying to bring joy and memories everyday for the students, so I believe that energy will be felt and remembered,” he says.

While Anton believes “students really do bounce back rather quickly,” he is keenly aware of the need for extra care.

“Each student and family has navigated and continues to navigate this unprecedented time,” he says. “We are preparing a robust supportive environment to help students transition back into a more typical school world over the next year to two.”

“We would love to find creative solutions to provide the students with an amazing experience for prom - a tented, starry night with heaters, open-air pavilion rentals, et cetera,” Anton says. “We successfully organized and deployed an outside, social-distanced graduation ceremony last year. We will build on that experience to honor our graduates and give families a chance to celebrate.”

For Anton, the recovery planning process involves “colleagues representing teachers, counselors, nurses, principals, and community partners to evaluate our students' needs and how to best support them.”

“Some things we are considering are summer programming, both academic and social/emotional; an extended student day; additional counseling positions; partnerships with mental health providers; in-house retention and graduation programs, and adult employee wellness.”

Another key issue for all schools to address is indoor air quality.

Leland & Gray was closed from Sept. 8 to mid-February to address that issue.

“In August of 2020, the West River Board decided for the schools to begin in remote [learning] until air testing revealed improved ventilation,” Anton says. “Once repairs were made, parts ordered, and ventilation measured, then Leland & Gray opened for in-person instruction. We have completed the fixes, and ventilation is working quite well.”

Asked if paying for the remediation were a major impediment, Anton was quick to say, “Nope.”

“The board was concerned about air quality, not money,” he says.

Speaking of money

School districts have benefited from “significant” additional federal funding during the pandemic, reports Fisher, who is also the Agency of Education's COVID-19 response manager.

Through the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds provided through the federal stimulus funding released in March and December of 2020 and the recently enacted American Rescue Plan, Vermont schools have received more than $411 million in additional, one-time funding to respond to COVID-19, according to Fisher.

Additionally, through the Coronavirus Relief Fund, the Legislature allocated $18 million to the AOE's indoor air quality grant, administered by Efficiency Vermont and providing money for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, as well as other indoor air-quality improvements to more than 300 schools.

An added $15 million to continue the program is currently pending.

“We certainly have a wish list,” says Dias of any additional money in the budget.

On that list? “Instructional coaching and support to meet those needs - and I'd love to have an outdoor education specialist support teachers and be outside to learn more about how to deliver academics,” she says.

“We're in the process of finalizing our updated Strong and Healthy Start guidance, the playbook by which schools operate,” Fisher says. “How long that will be applicable is still up in the air.”

But he hopes that next year, Vermont educators will return “to whatever is a new normal.”

“Education recovery will be multi-disciplinary with social service and an all-hands on-deck, holistic approach,” says Fisher, noting that at the close of this school year all will be reassessed.

“We know Vermont schools are able to operate in-school instruction, so we are trying to encourage schools to, in a shorter time frame than next fall, do more of that,” he says.

“The term 'learning loss' doesn't capture the full set of impacts, and that some students have actually done very well in remote learning,” Fisher says. “We need to hold space for the innovation and good work done as well.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates