Amid a surge in coronavirus cases and in anticipation of holiday travel, a cluster of southern Vermont schools will move to remote learning for several weeks.
All schools in the Two Rivers Supervisory Union will hold classes online, beginning after Thanksgiving break until Monday, January 11, superintendent Lauren Fierman wrote in a letter to parents on Sunday.
The supervisory union, which includes the Ludlow/Mount Holly Unified Union School District and Green Mountain Unified Union School District, is comprised of five schools: four elementary schools and one middle/high school. It serves approximately 950 students in Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish, Chester, Ludlow and Mount Holly.
Some staff and families had indicated that they would need to quarantine after the holidays because they were planning to go out of state or have guests from outside of Vermont in their homes, Fierman wrote.
“It has become clear that it will not be possible to staff our buildings safely and adequately during the three weeks between Thanksgiving and for the first week in January,” Fierman wrote to parents on Sunday.
Since school buildings reopened on September 8, all students have been attending classes in-person four days a week, with remote learning on Wednesdays. The district has reported no COVID-19 cases this school year.
But the upcoming holidays have many in Vermont, from state officials to school leaders, on high alert, especially with cases on the rise in Vermont and across the country.
"Again, if we could safely run schools during these coming weeks, we certainly would," Fierman wrote to parents. "It is the unfortunate situation that the safest place for our students to receive instruction from November 25 until January 11 will be at home."
Parents questioned the move during a Zoom meeting on Tuesday night. Shifting to virtual learning will put an added burden on students with fewer resources or special needs who have difficulty engaging on a remote-learning platform, some pointed out. Others expressed concerns about internet connectivity, childcare and a disruption in learning.
The supervisory union’s afterschool program is setting up a remote learning hub in Ludlow for parents who need childcare during the remote learning period. It will cost parents $100 per week per child and $75 for siblings, with state childcare subsidies available for those who qualify.
Despite the concerns from parents, Fierman stood by her decision.
“We certainly encourage staff and families not to travel or engage in holiday gatherings that would require quarantine,” she wrote to Seven Days. “However, we also respect the needs of our staff and families to make their own choices to care for their loved ones appropriately.”
She said that the school’s case managers would work with families to provide support to students who receive special education services during the remote learning period.
The Vermont Agency of Education had not heard from any other school districts that plan to go fully remote around the holidays, a spokesperson said in an email.
“It is important to note that there are no plans at this time to mandate or shift to remote learning on a statewide basis,” the spokesperson, Ted Fisher, wrote.
Other school districts are monitoring COVID-19 cases in the state before deciding whether to alter their schedules during the holiday season.
“I am watching the numbers closely, as well as actions that are being taken at the state level,” Montpelier Roxbury superintendent Libby Bonesteel wrote in an email to Seven Days on Wednesday.
She said her district sent home surveys to determine who is traveling over the holidays so that they can call those families and make sure they know the quarantine guidelines. Bonesteel said she did not anticipate staffing shortages due to holiday travel.
The Champlain Valley School District, Vermont’s largest, is not planning to preemptively close, superintendent Elaine Pinckney said in an email.
“We are advised by our pediatrician partners that schools are safe and that kids need to be in school — and we agree,” she wrote.
Things could change if the district needed subs to fill in “for even a small number of teachers” around the holidays, Pinckney added.
The Vermont Department of Health is planning to offer coronavirus testing to all district faculty and staff on Monday, according to Pinckney. The testing is part of a statewide strategy officials announced this week to examine the prevalence of COVID-19 in Vermont communities.