Schools won’t have staff to open by late August, superintendent warns

by Guy Page

July 27, 2020 – Lack of staff will render many if not most Vermont school districts unable to open as scheduled by the last week of August, a Washington County school superintendent predicts. Teachers and staff are applying to opt out of in-person instruction, she said.

According to a July 25 letter posted on the district website by Harwood Unified Union School District Supt. Brigid Nease, The Vermont Agency of Education Wednesday, July 22 surveyed Vermont superintendents, “Would you support an executive order mandating that schools not begin any instructional operations (in-person, remote or hybrid) earlier than 9/8?” At present, Wednesday, August 26 is scheduled as the first full day of instruction in most districts.

Brigid Nease and grandson. LinkedIn photo

Only six of 49 superintendents responding answered “no.” And why aren’t school district leaders ready to open before September 8? Nease explains: “Let’s not forget the big elephant in the room – having a workforce to operate. So, while I cannot provide the survey response data, I can say that out of 49 superintendents responding only 6 said no. Why? Because I am pretty certain that there is not a superintendent in this state that knows with certainty that they can staff their school.”

Given the uncertainty, Nease plans a temporary “toe-dipping” school schedule for her district – three days on, two off for students, four days on, one off for staff, while the problems of safely teaching classrooms of children during a pandemic get sorted out. But even this tentative plan seems to lack teacher/staff support:

“At the end [of a teacher/staff meeting last week attended by 150 via Zoom] I took a poll asking should we move to a 3-2 for students and a 4-1 for staff? Not a single hand was raised, and this isn’t because staff don’t want to come back to work or don’t agree that especially younger students desperately need to be in school. It is because these problems I am sharing today seem insurmountable at the local level.”

School employees seem to be ‘voting with their feet.’ “Letters of resignation, requests for leaves of absence, Family Medical Leave (FMLA), Emergency Family Medical Leave (EFML),  Emergency Paid Sick Leave (EPSL), Exemption status, and leave under the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA) (which provides up to 12 weeks of leave for employees unable to work because their child’s school is closed)  are coming in, Nease said.  

“The truth is most school employees are scared to death they will get sick (or worse), bring the virus home to loved ones, have a student in their care become ill, or experience the death of a coworker. However, the even bigger reason for leave requests is the untenable position this state has put school employees in by creating homegrown reopening schedules that do not align. Many Vermont school employees work in districts different from those they live in. They have their own children in several grade levels in schools throughout the state.” 

In addition to concerns about health and questions about how to “do school” under masking and social distancing, and hygiene requirements, childcare is looming as a major issue. “Childcare for all families and school employees is a huge problem that crosses many district geographical boundaries. This is a significant statewide problem in need of a significant statewide solution made by those that have the authority to do so, at the top of the food chain, not individual community administrators and local school boards.”

The problem of when and how to open school must be resolved at the state level by the Scott administration and the teachers’ union, the superintendent said. “This one superintendent respectfully recommends that the only way out is through, by having the Scott administration, the AOE, and the VTNEA take this bull by the horns and lean into it.”

Harwood Union High School – photo credit school district website