Less than a week out, state’s largest union gives Vermont a D+ on overall preparation for safe start of school

MONTPELIER – A lack of a coordinated statewide approach to safely reopening schools has left districts – as well as parents, school employees, and students – largely on their own, resulting in an overall grade of D+, according to the state’s largest union.

“Vermont educators and administrators have been working diligently to develop their local plans for reopening schools, but without a statewide approach and adequate state resources to properly implement these plans, health and safety measures vary widely,” said Don Tinney, a high school English teacher who serves as the president of the 13,000-member Vermont-NEA. “Safety is not negotiable, no matter where your school is located.”

Local educators around the state graded their own district’s reopening preparedness in multiple categories: health and safety; testing and tracking; adequate staffing; ventilation; contingency planning; and efficacy of Agency of Education guidance.

“To absolutely no one’s surprise, this district-by-district approach leaves Vermont’s schools all over the map,” Tinney said. “Some districts are more prepared than others; some districts have robust safety protocols, while others don’t have adequate supplies of personal protection equipment. No student, parent, or school employee should have to put their safety at risk.”

To that end, the report card revealed an uneven level of health and safety practices across the state.

Health and Safety: A full time nurse in every building; adequate PPE and social distancing requirements; bathrooms equipped with warm water, soap and sanitizers; hand sanitizer in every classroom. Overall grade: C+

Testing and Tracking: Daily health checks for students and staff; coordination between public health officials and administrators on testing and tracking regimens. Overall grade: C.

Adequate Staffing: Sufficient custodial staff in each building to conduct appropriate daily deep cleaning; sufficient bus drivers and bus attendants to implement safety procedures; sufficient number of substitutes to handle COVID-related staffing shortages. Overall grade: D.

Ventilation: Inspection and remediation of heating, ventilation, air conditioning systems; operational windows in all classrooms and work areas. Overall grade: F.

Contingency Plans: Procedures to close buildings or districts to contain outbreaks; robust remote learning plans if schools must close again to in-person instruction; plans for the safe isolation of those who become ill or test positive for COVID-19. Overall grade: D+

Efficacy of Statewide Guidance: Agency of Education is supportive on the local level for reopening during the pandemic; consistency of physical distancing guidance; appointment of a school nurse as COVID-19 coordinator; creation of a work group with multiple educators. Overall grade: C.

“Keeping students, parents, school employees, and our communities safe is important in the best of times, and it is absolutely essential during a global pandemic,” Tinney said. “We all want to return to in-person teaching and learning; but we can’t do so unless we can guarantee health and safety.”

The standards evaluated on the Vermont-NEA Reopening Report Card were derived from the union’s four-phase reopening plan that it released earlier this summer. That plan, which you can read here, called on state leaders to create a statewide reopening commission with front-line school employees and health and safety experts. That commission would have been charged with issuing statewide health and safety requirements for all schools.

“Unfortunately, what we now have is a patchwork of standards without consistency,” Tinney said. “Keeping students, parents, school employees, and communities safe shouldn’t matter whether you’re in Burlington, Barre, Newport, Bennington, Rutland, or St. Albans. COVID-19 has no respect for geography. When it comes to safety and health, all schools should be held to the highest standards.”

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