Education Op/Ed

Editorial: Schools make a plea for support, patience & understanding


Vermont residents wouldn’t be wrong to look at the state of our schools today and surmise they are in crisis.

Objectively, many of the problems are temporary, and pandemic-related. Nor is it a case where those in charge are in denial. Administrators, boards and teachers are aware of the concerns and are working hard to fix them. But be forewarned: the issues are complex and won’t be solved easily.

In last week’s Addison Independent, three separate stories dealt with troubling developments at Bristol and Middlebury schools that were attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also previous changes in school policy. In a nutshell, the problems are a result of student behavior of a small minority, partly as a consequence of not being fully in class for the past 18 months and partly because schools are understaffed.

Schools throughout the state, and across the nation, face a shortage of teachers, substitutes, paraeducators, bus drivers, and more.

But that’s just part of the problem.

At Middlebury Union Middle School, they have the added burden of starting a new International Baccalaureate program, which is not only new for faculty (requiring more training time out of the classroom for teachers) but also means MUMS was accepting — for the first time — two grades of new students that now make up the sixth and seventh grades, combined with the 8th grade students also having to get used to an extra group of younger students in the school. Add that to staffing shortages and the pandemic and it’s a near perfect storm. As the newness wares off, that should stabilize, but it couldn’t have been a worse couple of years to make that change.

Additional reporting this week by Christopher Ross, in which he relays a compelling interview with the parent of a special needs student, brings added understanding and insight into that aspect of the story… and hopefully, compassion. The story also reveals that some schools have been reducing support staff in favor of a policy that coaches teachers on how to deal with student behavioral problems. The idea was to save money on support staff by training teachers to cope with those issues. It’s a policy that doesn’t seem to have been working well even before COVID, but especially not in the shadow of the pandemic.

To that end, the universal call among teachers at Mount Abe, MUHS, VUHS, OVUHS and elsewhere are pleas for more support staff and more help in general.

It’s a plea that shouldn’t go unheeded. Every parent of students in today’s classrooms knows what stresses teachers, administrators and staff are facing and how that impacts the education their child receives.


The question, however, is this: With the recent outbreak of classroom disruptions, damage to facilities and the safety of students top of mind, have we reached a tipping point in Vermont in which more school resources outweigh concerns over higher school spending?

We would think that’s probable. No community is comfortable with such dire shortages that the safety of students and teachers are a school’s biggest concern. No community wants their school’s main focus to be regaining control of student behavior rather than focusing on academic success.

To get there, however, the Legislature will have to change, or suspend, the rules governing penalties for spending above a per-pupil cap. In this environment, that provision should be reconsidered on Day One of the new session in 2022. Moreover, other ways to rebuild schools’ support staffs should be a top consideration among school boards, the administration and the state legislature.

But even if that were to happen, it won’t be this year. That means what we see on the ground today is basically what we’ll have throughout this school year. Schools do have money to hire staff for existing positions (and note that many positions are unfilled, so money is there to be fully staffed), but the challenge is finding willing and capable applicants — and that is not guaranteed. The state and nation has a worker shortage, and that applies to schools in particular.

Recognizing those obstacles, the immediate solution is for each community to rally around its schools and listen to what teachers and administrators are saying — plain and simple, it is a call for community support, patience and understanding.

Parents need to double-down on the preparation they provide their children attending school and explain to them the dynamic that is underway and how to manage these times. They need to be giving extra support with homework and encouragement.

Community members must try to understand what the schools are going through and not be critical of students, teachers or administrators who are thrust into the spotlight — and that applies to negative banter between neighbors in a grocery store about what they think is wrong and who is at fault. Such disparaging comments polarize the community and don’t advance common solutions. Empathy of each other by all should be the community mantra.

The broader community also needs to understand that the pandemic’s impact on the education of current students will have repercussions for several years to come. MUHS Principal Justin Campbell said in a story this week about a current spike of COVID cases at the school that it was imperative schooling at MUHS remains open and in-person.

“There are real and substantial costs to students when schools close and/or go remote,” he said. “In my opinion, schools will be dealing with the fallout from the COVID closures for years to come.”

The state’s response should be apparent: We need to fix what’s broken. That will take additional resources. We must understand that it is prudent to do it now, and that the faster the state responds, the sooner schools will recover and students will have the opportunity to excel. Conversely, the slower we are to respond, the longer the harm will last.

Angelo Lynn

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