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Schools Closed for Remainder of Academic Year

Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools Superintendent Libby Bonesteel hands student meals to Montpelier parent Shelby Picard on Thursday, March 19. Photo by Tom Brown.
Montpelier educators are racing to find ways to teach, feed, and provide child care to students suddenly locked out of the classroom by the COVID-19 pandemic. That effort became even more complicated with the announcement March 21 that an MRPS employee had tested positive for the virus.

Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools Superintendent Libby Bonesteel said to a district employee tested positive tested for COVID-19 but as of Monday he or she was not showing symptoms. She said health officials are no longer tracing the contacts of infected individuals because the virus is considered widespread in the community.

“This is the first case in our district but it won’t be the last for us or other districts,” Bonesteel said. Meanwhile, school officials continue to address state-ordered responses to the pandemic.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott ordered public schools to close for the remainder of the school year. The order requires schools to continue to implement learning plans, to provide takeaway breakfasts and lunches for displaced students who want them, and to offer child care to pupils in pre-K–Grade 8 whose parents are defined as “essential” workers.

Preparing a remote curriculum and bagging lunches, while not a simple adjustment, is within the expertise of educators, chefs, and administrators. Child care, Montpelier-Roxbury Public School officials say, is not.

“My teachers have been asked to teach,” MRPS Superintendent Libby Bonesteel said. “My teachers are working a full-time job just like everyone else from their homes. I can’t say ‘teachers keep teaching as well as doing child care.’ That is an ask that I won’t make.”

Union Elementary School Principal Ryan Heraty joins Superintendent Libby Bonesteel on the food pickup line. Photo by Tom Brown

Bonesteel said the 1,100 student district does not have the teaching and support staff that larger districts have, and instead of providing on-campus child care for the children of essential workers, she is working with private providers such as Turtle Island, Orchard Valley Waldorf School, and the North Branch Nature Center to offer that service. Private child care providers are also closed due to the virus, but could reopen to care for the children of essential workers under the governor’s order. Larger districts, including U-32 and the Barre Unified School District, have indicated they would provide child care in their classrooms.

“I don’t have a lot of instructional assistants in our district because we’re small and many of our IAs would be exempt based on the list from the Secretary of Education’s office,” Bonesteel said. “Basic needs would be 65 people to do child care and I simply do not have 65 people.” Teachers over 60 years of age and those with other qualifying exemptions would not be asked to work in classrooms under the governor’s order.

So far, the demand for child care has been low as families find ways to keep their children at home, Bonesteel said. In addition to private child care facilities, the district is considering the use of volunteers who have undergone criminal background checks to provide care in their homes. She said the Agency of Education has signaled that both the private child care and volunteer options would be acceptable, she said.

“We are not child care providers,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out how to do the best of our ability with extremely limited resources.”

The list of essential workers includes educators, support staff, first responders, child care providers, health care workers, emergency personnel, grocery and pharmacy workers, and many more (see a link to the full list in the online version of this story).

The need to provide reliable child care for people on the front lines in battling this contagion is vital to keeping them on the job, health care providers say.

Central Vermont Home Health and Hospice in Berlin provides in-home care for patients of all ages and keeping its roughly 200 employees healthy and emotionally strong is the best way to keep people out of the hospital during this crisis, said Emily McKenna, marketing and communications manager for CVHHH.

“Now more than ever our services are really critical because we care for a lot of individuals who are at high risk and who could require hospitalization and emergency department use and we want to keep them in their home, and safe in their home, so they don’t go into the hospital and take up resources,” McKenna said.

She said Human Resources Director Rebecca Bowen is working with other health care organizations, such as the Central Vermont Medical Center and the VNAs of Vermont, to ensure that workers from around Central Vermont have access to child care.

“Our goals first and foremost are to keep our patients safe and to care for them, and to keep our staff safe,” McKenna said. “In light of the school closures we have to consider their ability to physically come to work and their ability to be fully engaged while they are there, which means knowing that their children are being cared for.”

Child care centers, such as Turtle Island in Montpelier, are eager to reopen and provide care for essential workers if needed, but questions over funding and liability need to be addressed.

Co-director Vicky Senni said that about 20 children of essential workers were already enrolled at Turtle Island before the shutdown and not all of those might need care during the crisis. She said the center is licensed for 90 children from infant to age 5, but the center might consider accepting school-aged children during the pandemic.

“We do want to reopen our doors,” Senni said. “We want to do what we can, but we need some guidance from experts to answer some of our quest before we can do that.”
Senni said Turtle Island is concerned about the health of its staff, many of whom do not have health insurance, should they contract COVID-19 while working.

“We want to make sure we’re still receiving income and that for parents who aren’t able to pay that their tuition would be covered because we are still continuing to pay our staff,” she said. “We want to make sure that parents are supported financially and can afford to pay our tuition beyond April 6 and that the insurance and liability questions are answered.”
Senni said that child care providers at Turtle Island, even those who are uninsured, have offered to step in and care for the children of essential workers.

“They love the work and they love the children and want to help,” she said.

Learning Plans Underway

Gov. Scott’s directive called for districts to create short- and long-term education plans that can be implemented remotely. Montpelier’s teachers are already working with their students online and are planning a curriculum to keep them on track however long they may be at home.

Shelby Picard, who has five children under 10 at Union Elementary School, said the lessons are already taking place and communication from the school system has been great.
“We have already had video hookups with their teachers and IT has been fantastic at keeping us informed,” Picard said. She said she is prepared for the long haul and is confident in the learning plans and that her children won’t fall behind.

“I am planning as if we aren’t going back until September,” she said. “Vermonters will work together to get through this.”

Superintendent Bonesteel said the school will work to provide devices, such as Chromebooks, to families who need them and that in Montpelier most families had internet access, unlike many more rural districts.

“We polled our student body last week and asked who does not have internet access and fewer than five families said they did not,” Bonesteel said. “We know who they are and can provide other learning opportunities to them. Some districts have up to 80 percent without internet access.”

She said the district will use a hybrid of online resources along with teacher-assigned studies and conferencing apps such as Google Hangouts to make sure the district’s curriculum goals are met.

“I want our parents to know that they are doing fine,” Bonesteel said. “Kids will learn, and we’re here to support them and we need to protect our teachers who are completely changing their profession while also having families of their own to protect.”