ANWSD leaders praise district for adapting well to pandemic

VERGENNES — At a virtual Addison Northwest School Board meeting last week, board members, student representatives and administrators joined the district’s efforts in continuing education, providing and transporting meals, and keeping its buildings clean and safe.
Director of Finance and Operations Elizabeth Jennings said all ANWSD employees had excelled in responding during the COVID-19 crisis. 
“It affects every single kind of person doing every single kind of job,” Jennings said. “I’m in awe and thankful for everyone in the entire district.”
Superintendent Sheila Soule also cast a wide net of praise.  
“I just want to thank faculty, staff, administrators and students during this incredibly difficult time,” Soule said. “They are rising to the challenge.”
Soule also cited the “incredible amount of flexibility” of ANWSD employees.
The three student representatives to the board, Alder Donovan-Cook, Una Fonte and Reagan Kayhart, acknowledged it has not been easy for either students or teachers to make the change to learning at home. 
“We’re all sort of aware this just stinks,” Donovan-Cook said. “But I want to give a big shout-out to the teachers and administrators, who’ve been outstandingly supportive.”
He said he believed with their help the best has been made of the situation.
“It really feels like I’m getting as robust an education as I can under the circumstances,” Donovan-Cook said. 
Fonte said she and other students she had talked to were definitely missing the structure of their days at school, but were learning the self-discipline needed to get work done.
“We’re going to have a generation with good time-management skills,” Fonte said. 
Fonte said some clubs have remained active, and although some students have been concerned they were getting daily work in some courses even though they typically meet every other day, teachers were listening to complaints.
“Teachers have responded, mostly, to students’ concerns of too much work,” she said.
Kayhart concluded the meeting’s student feedback portion with a simple message about teachers: “I think they’re doing a really great job.”
Soule did point to what she called “the second layer of issues” teachers are facing, including how to evaluate students’ work and feedback and reach out to struggling students without face-to-face interaction, but said she was confident they could be addressed. 
Board members said they believed ANWSD teachers were handling the challenges well. Keith Morrill thanked teachers and administrators for their efforts on behalf of his children and others.
“It’s provided some semblance of normalcy for them,” Morrill said. 
Jennings pointed out that kitchen workers have upped their daily meal count from 400 to 700, and many have pitched in to help with deliveries along bus routes to children and families who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
Addison County State Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Middlebury, who attended the meeting along with other lawmakers, joined the chorus praising the district’s meals effort. 
“I just want to commend you, Addison Northwest, for doing a superb job on that,” Hardy said. 
Board member Tom Borchert summed up the efforts of all staff members, from custodians to administrators. 
“What the district has done has been nothing short of phenomenal,” Borchert said.

The board heard from State Sen. Chris Bray, D-Bristol, and Reps. Diane Lanpher and Matt Birong, both D-Vergennes, as well as Hardy.
Lanpher updated the board on projections by the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office of an $88.7 million shortfall in the Vermont Education Fund during current fiscal year, with more problems foreseen for fiscal year 2021, which begins July 1.
Lanpher and other lawmakers have told the Independent a combination of inter-fund borrowing and short-term notes should be able to cover the deficit from this year. But they have also said that federal money might have to be the answer for the looming Fiscal Year 2021 issues. 
“I am very worried about (Fiscal Year) ’21,” said Lanpher, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. 
Lanpher said because of postponed deadlines for businesses to submit Sales and Rooms and Meals tax receipts and for residents to submit state and federal income tax returns, the state’s fiscal picture would not be clear until this summer.
“We won’t know until mid-August or later what to expect in ’21,” she said, while cautioning board members to expect problems “as dramatic as ’20.”
Bray sits on the Government Operations committee, which he said had worked on allowing civic bodies like the ANWSD board to meet legally on a remote basis and was turning its focus on summer and fall elections. Paper ballots would be emphasized, he said, with mail and drop-off options probably available. 
Hardy said her Senate Education Committee was working on “trying to ramp up” internet access to support distance learning, and hoped for federal funding to support the effort. 
The committee was also looking into ways to best continue special education remotely, she said, while acknowledging it was “hard to do … for some of the most vulnerable students.”
The committee is also working on a bill that would allow the 18 school districts that have not passed a budget to enter the new school year with a budget equal to that of the current year, if the districts did not feel it would be safe to hold an election. 
Hardy also cautioned the committee would be taking “a look at all school budgets, including yours, to see what we can afford.”
Bray added at that point that he hoped this crisis would get people to understand that school districts were providing many “social services” above and beyond education, and that possibly in the future people would “see that value and fund it fully without relying solely on property taxes.”

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