School district to reopen in-person kindergarten

State moves to final phase of school reopening plans

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

The Champlain Valley School District plans to bring kindergarten students back to a four-day-a-week, in-person schedule starting Oct. 5, according to communications director Bonnie Birdsall.

The district hopes to make a final decision on the move later this week, she said. 

The move would be a first step toward returning to normalcy for the district, which is offering only remote and partially remote learning options for students in response to the coronavirus pandemic.  

On Monday, the neighboring Essex Westford School District announced that students kindergarten through fifth grade can return to school full-time starting Oct. 5. The decision came after a meeting of the Champlain Valley Regional Superintendent’s Association, of which Champlain Valley School District Superintendent Elaine Pinckney is a member.

Pinckney could not be reached for comment.

The superintendents association determined that three benchmarks need to be in place before students return: adequate staffing, established health practices and routines, and stable statewide COVID infection rates. The Vermont Agency of Education and the Department of Health have encouraged school districts to return to full-time, in-person learning as soon as practical.

Since school began on Sept. 8, there have been “a small number of COVID cases” in schools statewide, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said Tuesday. 

“None of the people who tested positive got the virus due to being in school,” Levine said. “Based on our investigations, all had been exposed prior to classes beginning. Even if they were potentially infectious for a day in school, adherence to physical distancing and masking guidance have been, and remain, critical strategies for students and staff to continue adhering to.”

Fully opening schools is part of the third and final phase of the Department of Education’s safety and health recommendations that are guiding schools in their plans this fall. Education Secretary Dan French moved the state into the third phase on Monday, effective at the end of this week. The move gives schools the option to return to in-person instruction for all grade levels and opens the door for the fall sports season to begin (see related story, page 1).

Except for kindergarten, the Champlain Valley School District will keep the rest of the grades in its partially remote schedule. With this schedule, schools are never more than half full on any given day, making it practical to observe physical distance guidelines. Masks are required for students, staff and teachers, and temperature and symptom checks are conducted before students can enter the building. 

During the three weekdays students are not in school, they are learning online from home,  

“It’s hard because my husband is trying to work remotely, but our internet isn’t good, so when the kids have online learning and he’s trying to work and everybody’s on the internet, we sometimes all get booted off,” said Carrie Williams Howe, parent of a first-grader at Allen Brook School.

However, the beginning of school this year has offered a welcome return to in-person learning, even if just two days a week.

“The social part about not having friends to play with has been the hardest for her,” she said of her daughter. “So going back to school has helped with that. The chance to see her friends for two days of the week is a relief.”

“There’s just been sort of overwhelming gratitude and thankfulness that kids are at least back in school a couple days a week,” said Williston Central School Principal Jackie Parks. 

Howe commends the efforts from district parents to support the schools, saying there has been an outpouring of support from the community which has made the return to school feel like a collaborative effort.

She remains cautiously optimistic about the school year.

“We are trying not to get too attached to anything because we know it could change either to full-time school or no school at any point,” Howe said. “So it’s also about kind of being flexible and going with the flow.” 

Ciara McEneany and Zoe Hulina of UVM’s Reporting and Documentary Storytelling program contributed to this report.