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Orwell-area schools plan fall reopening

The social, physical, emotional wellbeing of kids, the quality and equity of education can’t be replicated in a remote format.
— SVUUSD board Chair Tim Smith

ORWELL — The Slate Valley Unified Union School District (SVUUSD) on Tuesday announced students would return to Orwell Village School this fall. 
It is part of a school re-entry plan in which students in kindergarten through 8th grade will attend classes on their respective campuses, and students in grades 9-12 will see a combination of virtual classes and in-person classes at Fair Haven Union High School.
The SVUUSD board voted 11-4 in favor of the re-entry plan, with the caveat that it could change during the coming weeks depending on state and federal guidelines pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic forced closure of all schools in the state in March and resulted in students taking classes through various online platforms.
“It’s a work in progress,” SVUUSD board Chair Tim Smith said on Tuesday of the plan. “But we need to have a plan now because we’re going to need the next three, four or five weeks to put the wheels into motion.
“We can’t really waver any more and wait. You have to take a position and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do, this is how we’re going to proceed.’ We’re getting ready for the reality of kids coming back into the schools.”
While online learning has kept some students up to speed on their studies, school officials realize a “virtual” education can’t be as rewarding and comprehensive as attending classes on campus. The Addison Central School District expects to announce early next month how it will deliver education to Middlebury-area kids. Addison Northwest, Mount Abraham and Rutland Northeast districts are also readying re-entry plans, which could borrow from SVUUSD’s roadmap.
SVUUSD includes the towns of Orwell, Castleton, Benson, Hubbardton, West Haven and Fair Haven.
Slate Valley Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell outlined the district’s back-to-school plans in a July 21 letter to district parents and guardians. Here are some of the highlights:
•  PreK-8 students will return to their respective campuses five days a week for in-person learning.
•  Students in grades 9-12 will attend in-person learning every other day; on the opposite day they will attend remotely.
“There may be some adjustments to this schedule for students with Individual Education Plans that require alternative programming to meet their unique needs,” Olsen-Farrell said.
She stressed, “In-person learning will not look like it did prior to the COVID-19 closure.” Based on Vermont Agency of Education guidelines:
•  PreK-12 students and staff will have to wear face coverings, except for when they’re eating or drinking. Students will be expected to come with their own face coverings, though the district will provide them to those who don’t have one.
“We recognize that each student may have their own preference in terms of facial coverings and want them to be as comfortable as possible,” Olsen-Farrell said.
•  Adults and students will be expected to keep 6 feet apart whenever possible, knowing this won’t be possible in every situation, such as on the school bus.
•  Transitions within the schools will be limited. Wherever possible, adults will move rather than the students. Students will be in their own classrooms or outside as much as possible during the school day.
•  Cafeterias and gymnasiums will be closed. Students will eat breakfast and lunch in their classrooms or outdoors. Physical education will occur outdoors, to the greatest extent possible.
•  There will be staggered arrivals and dismissals, creating a school day that will be an hour and 15 minutes shorter than usual. Individual SVUUSD schools will contact parents/guardians with specifics on scheduling. 
•  The first day of school for students has been pushed back to Aug. 31, with the exception of Stafford Technical Center students, who will start as scheduled on Aug. 26.
•  In order to reduce student numbers on buses, parents will be encouraged to pick-up and drop off their K-12 children whenever possible.
“Certainly we understand that this is not an option for all families and will have protocols in place on the buses as well, such as screenings for all students, assigned seating, sanitation and required facial coverings,” Olsen-Farrell said.
•  All staff and students will be screened daily at the first point of contact using temperature checks. At the same time, those seeking to enter the building will be asked some basic health questions, such as, “Have you been in close contact with a person who has COVID-19?”
•  School buildings will be closed by 4:30 p.m. each day to allow for thorough sanitization. Additional staff will help with this. In the buildings that have after-school care, the district is planning on continuing this until 4:30 each day.
•  All daily schedules in the buildings will be revised. For example, the high school will be moving to a block schedule to allow for a lesser number of transitions and a lesser number of courses that students need to focus on at one time.
•  All student assignments will be posted online in Google Classroom, or in Seesaw (K-2), in the event the district needs to pivot quickly to a remote learning option.
•  “Isolation rooms” are being built within each of the school nurse’s offices should anyone come down with COVID-19 symptoms during the school day.
•  The district is awaiting state guidance on the issue of school sports.
•  Children who travel to a county out of state that’s on Vermont’s quarantine list will need to quarantine based on Vermont’s guidelines. This means they won’t be allowed to attend in-person learning.
Students who become ill for any reason, or who need to quarantine, will be able to attend school remotely. Online allowances won’t be made for those who aren’t ill and/or who don’t have “medical documentation that would exclude them from in-person learning,” Olsen-Farrell stated in her July 21 letter.
Children who don’t meet the online rules will need to consider other education options, including homeschooling.
Educators who aren’t comfortable teaching on campus will need to inquire with district human resources officials about their employment options, according to Olsen-Farrell.
“We do like to make accommodations, but teaching fully remote wouldn’t be one of them at this time,” Olsen-Farrell said during a Tuesday phone interview. “We don’t have the capacity to allow staff to be exempt from teaching in person.”
Smith echoed that point on Tuesday.
“We’re really not offering people a full-fledged, stay-at-home, ‘remote’ option (for those who aren’t sick or who don’t have medical permission),” he said. “If there are overriding circumstances, if there’s doctor’s permission, someone is at risk and that can be confirmed — then certainly we can accommodate those sorts of things. But we don’t have a menu to choose from.”
Plans call for SVUUSD officials to reach out to each district household before the end of this month to explain the school re-entry plan and receive feedback.

IN A GOOD POSITION
As of Tuesday, Vermont has recorded 1,366 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began in early March. Rutland and Addison counties have recorded 80 and 71 cases, respectively.
Smith believes the state is well positioned health-wise to restart in-person learning.
“We’re very fortunate in Vermont, and I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t take advantage of our good fortunes and get our kids back into school,” Smith said. “The social, physical, emotional wellbeing of kids, the quality and equity of education can’t be replicated in a remote format.”
Smith also believes news of the re-entry plan will buoy district voters as they go to the polls on Aug. 11 to field a $26.4 million SVUUSD budget proposal for fiscal year 2021 (see related story). Slate Valley is one of the few remaining school districts in the state to not have an approved budget for the current year. Voters have twice rejected the original spending plan of $26.6 million.
All three of Orwell’s representatives on the SVUUSD board voted in favor of the school reentry plan. Among them was Peter Stone.
“I think it’s really important that kids come back into class to learn,” Stone said on Tuesday, adding he believes SVUUSD is nimble enough to transition back to online learning quickly if the pandemic becomes more aggressive in Vermont.
“We have a good school administration that can figure it out,” Stone said. “Being in Vermont, with the precautions we’ve taken, I’m confident we’ll have a good year.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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