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COVID-19 Still a Threat as Schools Open 

Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools Superintendent Libby Bonesteel takes the helm with COVID-19 testing at Main Street Middle School. File photo by Cassandra Hemenway
Students in the Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools district are set to return next week, and for a fourth consecutive school year they will do so under the specter of COVID-19.

The pandemic that altered the way students are taught and left many academically and socially challenged is still with us despite vaccines and treatments that have rendered it far less deadly. 

This year the state Department of Health and Agency of Education are leaving it to school nurses to assess a student’s condition and to send home those with a fever, similar to the protocol for seasonal flu.

“We will no doubt continue to see cases of COVID-19 in our communities and in our schools,” said Education Secretary Dan French in a memo to school districts last week. “But with the advent of vaccination and new treatments, the risks from COVID-19 are much lower than they were two years ago. I am very optimistic that the opening of school this year will proceed with minimal interruption from COVID-19.”

Libby Bonesteel, MRPS Superintendent, said she will follow the state guidelines but is not ready to declare victory over the virus.

“It’s not over,” she said. “There is potentially less stress coming from families and from staff and there are certainly some people who are still stressed out by it, but overall there is less stress and angst around it.”

The district did experience brief COVID shutdowns last school year, most notably at the Roxbury Village School.

The district will provide at-home rapid antigen tests for students with symptoms, and nurses can also administer the more definitive LAMP (loop-mediated isothermal amplification) test. Students testing positive should isolate themselves for five days and be free of symptoms before returning to school.

“We are to pretty much treat it as a cold or flu-like condition,” Bonesteel said. “If a kid has a fever of 100.2 they are to go home, which is what we do anyway.”

Six New Administrative Staff

Three of the district’s four schools have new principals, although one of them simply switched locations. Katie Barea moved from leading the Main Street Middle School last year to become principal at Union Elementary.

Julie Conrad, a math specialist who came from Georgia (Vt.) Middle School, replaces Barea at MSMS. Jason Gingold takes over as principal at Montpelier High School, replacing Renee DeVore. Emily Therrien is the new assistant principal at MHS.

The district also has a new business manager, Christina Kimball, who replaces Grant Geisler. Kimball is familiar with the district’s budget, having worked as assistant business manager.

Jessica Murray was hired as director of social emotional learning and wellness, and Peggy-Sue Van Nostrand is the new director of student services.

Bonesteel said taking care of students and staff after the intense anxiety of the peak COVID crisis is getting a lot more of the administration’s attention.

“We’re really focused on wellness, what can we do to work within the system to make the teachers’ job more doable,” she said.

The district this year is offering access to a third-party online counseling service, called Talkspace, for students, parents, and educators who need someone to talk anonymously about the stresses they feel.

The pandemic, among other factors, has helped fuel a shortage of educators, as many elected to retire or seek non-classroom occupations.

Bonesteel said the state legislature should consider easing the burden for relicensing teachers and could offer incentives, such as loan forgiveness, for teachers. Special educators, in particular, are in high demand, she said.

The district is aware that isolation from the pandemic has elevated social challenges for many students and that has led to an increase in bullying and other behavior changes, and leaders are addressing the situation, Bonesteel said. 

“We hear from the community about the treatment of kids, and how kids are treating each other, and we need to do things differently to support kids and families to prevent these things from happening in the future. We are working with the board to see how we can do better.”

The MRPS schools open August 25.