BY JASON STARR
Facing strong pressure from parents and with teacher vaccinations ramping up, school administrators have announced that seventh- and eighth-graders will return to a more regular in-school schedule at Williston Central School starting April 5.
Middle school students have been attending school just two days a week and learning from home three days a week in a hybrid schedule created last fall in the midst of the pandemic. After the new year, several parents of seventh- and eighth-graders began pressuring Champlain Valley School District administrators and school board members to figure out ways to increase in-person school days for their children.
“Teachers and kids should be back in the classroom … it is necessary for the emotional well-being of our children,” Bob White, a parent from Williston, wrote in a March 3 letter to the school board.
Williston parent Jill Quong said the hybrid schedule has violated the district’s responsibility to guarantee equal access to education to all students.
“There is nothing more important or more paramount to the board’s obligations and responsibilities than to ensure that our students are being properly educated,” she wrote in a March 3 letter to the board. “It appears that the board has yielded complete authority to principals and superintendent to make these critical decisions without any apparent oversight.”
The school district originally put the reduced schedule in place to adhere to state and federal public health guidelines stating that students maintain 6 feet of physical distance in the building. While that guidance has not changed, Williston principals Jackie Parks and Greg Marino have juggled class schedules and repurposed space to make room for the influx of seventh- and eighth-graders.
“Our principals and teachers deserve a lot of credit. They knew how important it was and they are making it happen,” Superintendent Elaine Pinckney said. “There are tradeoffs. If it were easy, we would have done it a long time ago.”
Parks and Marino were not available for comment. Pinckney said doubling the in-classroom time for seventh- and eighth-graders will impact the scheduling of essential arts and world language classes throughout the school. Seventh- and eighth-graders will return to school on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will remain a remote learning day.
Teachers became eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations last week, and as of Tuesday, about 7,000 school and child care staff statewide had been vaccinated, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Smith. A teacher vaccination clinic run by the Vermont National Guard was held Tuesday at CVU High School. The district expects that teachers will be fully vaccinated by the end of April.
“The news of vaccine availability for all our faculty and staff in the near future and the prospect of having all adult Vermonters at least in line for a vaccine by May floods us with hope, joyful anticipation and optimism,” Pinckney wrote in a letter to the school community last week.
Educators are expecting significant social and academic fallout from this year of remote learning. As mandated by the Vermont Agency of Education, the school district has convened a “recovery team” led by Director of Learning and Innovation Jeff Evans and Director of Student Services Meagan Roy.
The team plans to complete an individualized assessment of each student this spring in the areas of emotional and mental health, truancy and engagement and academic achievement. Parents can expect a customized report from the district by the end of the school year about their students.
“It’s sort of a ‘here’s where your kid is related to the standards,’” Roy said.
The recovery team will compile the data to determine how many students need additional support and how that support will be designed and delivered. “Some of the kids who will need support are not traditionally on (individualized education) plans,” Roy said.
Part of the recovery plan is to develop a four-week summer school with options tailored to deficiencies stemming from remote learning.
School board member Erin Brady, who represents Williston in the Vermont House of Representatives, said the district can expect about $5 million in new federal coronavirus relief funds to support the recovery team work. The district has already received about $5 million in recovery funds from last year.