2021-08-19 HUUSD Reopening Letter from Superintendent Nease #2


August 19, 2021

Dear HUUSD Students, Staff, Families, and Community,

As I write today to share more specific information about reopening our schools next week, during the current state of the pandemic, I am very saddened. While working with superintendents across the state all last week, and just completing an all superintendent- meeting with the Secretary of Education, along with what is being reported in the Vermont press, in my opinion, we have another very significant problem looming.  

I am hearing direct reports of personal fear from principals and superintendents. One of my superintendent colleagues has received a death threat. Some principals are receiving letters from groups threatening to storm the schools on the first day. Leaders are receiving voicemails from very angry community members screaming at them. Today, when seeking out advice and support we were told to access law enforcement. There is more, but I’ll stop. What gives me hope is that in my 13 years as your superintendent our community has always pulled together during times of crisis and adversity. Transparency is one of the things that will allow this to continue now.That's what I am attempting to do in this communication. 

Friends and colleagues, this discord is happening in our Vermont communities. It must stop. We must use respectful civil discourse to discuss our differences and compromise where we can to find solutions. We are all fearful on some level. I am appealing to our HUUSD community to use appropriate channels and forums to engage in these difficult conversations.

So here we are, opening schools with the Delta variant and virus spread. We have been told since ending school in June that we will open schools for in-person learning 5 days a week using our pre-COVID models. You can review what was sent to leaders here: 

Advisory Memo: COVID-19 Prevention Measures for Fall 2021, dated August 4, 2021.

Instructional Operations for Fall 2021 dated May 28, 2021.

As leaders struggle now at the 11th hour to make reopening plans that no one thought we needed, we find ourselves advised by conflicting or absent information from the AOE (Agency of Education), VDH (Vermont Department of Health), CDC (Center for Disease Control), and the American Academy of Pediatrics in an environment of daily changing information about the virus. 

Please consider the information below:

Who Gets to Decide?

Because Governor Scott’s Declaration of a State of Emergency ended in June, decision making responsibility for COVID-19 school operations has shifted back to local school districts. Districts by statute are permitted to implement stronger mitigation strategies than the agency memorandum referenced above. 16 V.S.A. Section 834(a) states “Each school district and its employees owe its students a duty of ordinary care to prevent the students from being exposed to unreasonable risk, from which it is foreseeable that injury is likely to occur.”  

The Superintendent and School Board of Directors get to decide. They have the responsibility to create and adopt an operational plan to the best of their ability to keep students and staff safe and buildings open. The duty of care statute above and statutory rules in Title 16 direct school superintendents and school boards to implement whatever is necessary for the sound operation of its public schools. School boards have very broad authority by VT statute. 

Our school board no doubt will partner with our admin team as they always have as we move forward this year. Last year at the start of COVID, our board took action making the superintendent of schools ultimately responsible for our mitigation strategies and hybrid education models. Unless they overturn that decision, we will continue forward just as we did last year.

This week, the HUUSD Admin Team spent two days in retreat making these decisions collaboratively.  We will continue to monitor virus spread. In addition to the Waterbury Rec outbreak,  just recently, Neck of the Woods and other child care providers in the area have experienced positive cases, some of which necessitated closures. The current status of our county and towns, the recent spread especially among children, what is being reported in terms of updated medical information, and our direct experiences from last year necessitate our moving forward with an abundance of caution at the start of this school year. Therefore, we will begin the school year almost like we ended it last spring. If and when conditions improve, we will lessen our mitigation strategies. 

Our plan is to be thorough and conservative with the most preventative and proactive measures the first month. It is very important to remember that our decisions about mitigation elements are not just about spreading or containing the virus. They are about keeping our schools open 5 days a week and being able to staff them. Remember, we have no remote learning plans available to us this year, except those we always participated in at the high school pre-COVID. 

Since my message last week, and as opening day draws near, our building administrators and I are receiving a flood of email and calls. We do not have the capacity to get to each sender/caller with the same timeliness you may be accustomed to given the immediate workload before us.

We ask you to join our HUUSD teams in fully achieving our goals of:

  • Keeping all staff and students as safe as possible physically, emotionally, and socially.
  • Keeping all 7 schools open 5 days each week for fully in-person learning.
  • Keeping licensed high quality teachers in classrooms throughout this pandemic year.

The success of our goals depends on maintaining robust learning environments all year where athletics, drama, and all co-curricular activities are not cancelled. They depend on not closing classrooms, teams, or schools. We know students and staff may contract the virus. Like last year, we stopped the spread within our schools then and we can do it again, but it will take everyone.

This year we will be unable to offer remote learning options.There are many reasons for that. But two of the most important are 1) the AOE has said we will maintain an open 5 day a week building at all times, so we do not have available staff to do both; and 2) we need to do everything we can to overcome and prevent further student learning loss and social/emotional stress. 

HUUSD Reopening Mitigations Strategies as of August 20, 2021:

  1. All students and staff regardless of vaccine status will remain masked indoors until further notice.
  2. All students will remain masked while riding buses. We will not have bus monitors.Seating charts will be developed and required in order to accurately contact trace.
  3. Accurate and timely contact tracing will be an important variable in stopping the spread and keeping our schools open. All classes will have seating charts and/or sign in sheets.
  4. Staff will incorporate the outdoors as much as is reasonable in their instruction or daily routines.
  5. Classroom windows should remain open as much as possible.
  6. All students and staff will remain masked outdoors unless they are distanced at least 6 feet apart.
  7. Frequent hand washing and disinfecting will continue to the greatest extent possible.
  8. All staff will be required to be vaccinated unless they provide a medical exemption, or be tested weekly as absolutely supported by VTNEA.
  9. Voluntary periodic surveillance testing will be provided for all students and staff ages 5 and up, regardless of vaccination status.
  10.  Volunteers and parents will be allowed in school buildings on a limited basis, with permission from the principal, masked and with proof of vaccination. 
  11.  Lunch will be served partially in the cafeteria and in some classrooms because all students will be distanced and facing forward. The exact configuration will be determined by building principals based on the size of the groups and spaces. Masks will be worn immediately following eating. No salad bars will be provided.
  12. The district will be unable to provide any remote learning. Students who must stay home for quarantine or illness will be treated as they were when sick pre-COVID. Teachers will provide work as appropriate and reasonable.
  13. Students will not gather in large groups, like assemblies. Libraries and gyms can be used for their intended purposes.
  14. Physical education  HERE and music HERE classrooms will begin the year using the same mitigation strategies they used at the end of last year. 
  15. All students’ drop off and pick up will remain outdoors.
  16. The school will not conduct screenings. Students and staff are urged to conduct screening each morning before school and should remain home if symptomatic regardless of vaccination status.
  17. Students will be distanced 3 feet apart not facing each other whenever possible. Working in small groups/partners is allowable, but should be used as minimally as possible indoors. Encourage partner and small group work outdoors. 
  18. Field trips will be determined on an individual basis based on location, age of students, and conditions. Overnight, out of state, and international trips are not allowed but this could change in the future.  
  19. Facilities use of the school buildings will be allowed after hours using the regularly established policy and procedures. 
  20. Only packaged treats can be shared at school. They must be distributed by staff.
  21. Snow days will not be remote learning days. They will need to be made up at the end of the year. 

Like most districts in Vermont we are facing a serious hiring challenge. As far as open positions left to hire we have: 4 teachers (World Lang. & 3 Special Ed), 11 Para educators, 2 Food Service Workers, 2 Social Workers, 1 Receptionist, and 1 Registrar. 

Please review the protocols for returning to school after being ill or exposed HERE

We appreciate that families and community members have many questions, concerns, and may wish different decisions were made. Just as we respect each of you and your thoughts and opinions, we hope that you in turn can respect the tough decisions we are forced to make. None of us can control this virus. We are doing the best we can. Some might say that our opening protocols are too strict. Please know that the greatest fear school leaders have since COVID began is that we would lose even one student or staff member to this pandemic. The only way we can sleep at night and move forward is to believe we did everything we could to prevent such a tragedy. 

Please consider joining us on Monday, August 23rd. The school board will host a Q&A with myself and other school leaders from 6:30 to 8:00PM to answer your questions about the return to school and explain our thinking even further. The easiest way to ask questions will be by remotely attending on zoom (https://us02web.zoom.us/j/386460007); the forum will also be recorded and broadcast on the district’s YouTube channel (tinyurl.com/huwebapp-youtube-live).  Questions? Contact Board Chair,Torrey Smith at [email protected]

With warm regards,

Superintendent Brigid Nease 

 

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