By Lola Duffort/VTDigger
The Mill River Unified Union School District has announced students will not be returning to classrooms in September or October, although officials are leaving open the possibility of opening for in-person learning later in the year.
The 900-student Rutland County school district, which serves Shrewsbury, Tinmouth, Wallingford and Clarendon, appears to be the first in Vermont to say that instruction will be fully remote for the fall.
Mill River Superintendent David Younce said the decision not to offer any in-person instruction was “not at all an easy call to make,” and said it was deeply unpopular with what appears to be a majority of parents.
“Those reactions are usually centered around ‘Do you understand how this impacts my work life, my child care?’ All things that are very, very understandable, and honestly have been burdening me since March,” he said.
School districts have been releasing reopening plans throughout the past few weeks, and while the plans vary widely, they all appear to be offering some form of hybrid instruction, with a mix of in-person and remote learning.
At least one group of schools has announced plans that approaches what Mill River has said it will do: the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union intends for instruction to be fully remote when school starts up on Sept. 8. But administrators in the district, which serves the Bennington region, have also said they plan to start bringing students back into the classroom in phases starting later next month.
Gov. Phil Scott’s administration has not taken a strong position on the reopening process, and, save for basic health and safety guidelines, has allowed individual districts to come up with their own plans for the fall.
But the administration has tried to reassure educators that reopening schools, particularly in the younger grades, can be done safely given Vermont’s low levels of community spread.
Pediatricians and infectious disease specialists have made multiple appearances at the governor’s weekly press conferences, highlighting research that suggests young children are unlikely to catch or pass on the virus and urging school officials to welcome students back into classrooms.
“Throughout that conversation there has not been any public dialogue about all the adults that work in school and all the vulnerable adults that work in our systems,” Younce said.
Younce said he had a hybrid plan developed and ready to go when he decided it just wasn’t workable. He said he worried about schools being shut down anyway as soon as a single case of Covid-19 was confirmed in the district. And he echoed other education officials who have expressed concerns about adequate staffing for a mix of in-person and remote options at the same time.
“I don’t think schools are going to be able to pull this off. I want to make sure whatever we’re delivering is sustainable, regardless of what the environment around this looks like, and I want to make sure we can staff our schools fully,” he said.
A few Vermont superintendents have pitched conversative approaches to the fall and have seen school boards rebel, with members demanding that students be brought back into classrooms for more face-to-face instruction. Younce said he hasn’t asked the Mill River school board to take a public vote on his plan, but that he has strong – albeit maybe not unanimous – support for his approach.