From the Superintendent's Desk
Mark Tucker, M.A. - Caledonia Central Supervisory Union
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update March 14, 2020
What is New
Vermont has reached four cases of COVID-19, one confirmed by the CDC (presumably the first case in Bennington from last week) and three others that are classified as presumptive positive. There is a fifth case of a Westchester County, NY resident who is being treated at Springfield Hospital, but for some reason it is not being counted as a Vermont Case.
You can read the latest update from the Vermont Department of Health at https://www.healthvermont.gov/response/infectious-disease/2019-novel-coronavirus
On March 13, Gov. Phil Scott called on Vermonters to help protect our most vulnerable – the elderly and the very ill – and announced several mitigation strategies to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus. They include restricting visitor access at long-term care facilities, prohibiting large, non-essential gatherings of more than 250 people and suspending out-of-state travel for state employees. Gov. Scott declared a state of emergency to help ensure Vermont has all the necessary resources to respond to this evolving threat. You can read the Executive Order at: https://governor.vermont.gov/sites/scott/files/documents/EO%2001-20%20Declaration%20of%20State%20of%20Emergency%20in%20Response%20to%20COVID-19%20and%20National%20Guard%20Call-Out.pdf
At this time there is no order to close Vermont schools. I am well aware from the email traffic and conversations that we have a number of folks who are questioning a “lack of action” by the State, and some who are insisting that we just act on our own. The current thinking of the public health experts that we are relying on is that it is still premature to close the schools, and this was explained in detail in Governor Scott’s press conference. I would summarize it this way – that at present it is considered more risky for young children to be staying at home with elderly grandparents who are most susceptible to infection. This may seem a bit counter-intuitive but I think it is in line with yesterday’s Executive Order to focus on caring for the most vulnerable population, the elderly.
The Governor did make it clear that, absent a statewide school closure decision, families are free to make their own decisions on whether they send their children to school. We understand this is a personal choice, and in some cases, an essential choice for families who work in the medical profession and need to precisely track potential exposure paths. If any family in CCSU feels they want to keep their child(ren) home, you may do so without penalty. The only thing I ask is that you understand we are not quite ready to be sending school work home – we are working on procedures for doing this on a large scale (see discussion below) and we would like to focus on that for now.
Please don’t assume that, just because we haven’t closed the schools no one is thinking about it. There is a lot of planning and discussion ongoing at the State level, and I expect to be hearing more specific guidance from the Agency over the next few days. To be perfectly honest, since the first case of COVID-19 in Vermont was confirmed last weekend, I have thought of little but the complex issues that we will have to address if we close the schools in response to this pandemic. Following is a brief overview of the issues we are working on and some of the reasons this is not as simple as it might appear:
1. Once a school closure decision is made – and I suspect it is no longer a question of if but when – we do not know at the present time what the duration of the closure will actually be. This makes it hard to plan for the scope of our response; it will be a very different challenge if it is just a couple weeks versus a couple of months (this is totally hypothetical, to make the point!).
2. Many of our students rely on school for food security, and we will need to be able to make and provide food for at least some of our families. What we will provide and how it will be delivered are just two of the basic issues here. We actually have to ask permission from the USDA to continue operating the food service programs at our schools if the schools are closed. We have filed the necessary application with the USDA and received their approval, but they also require us to file a different application with the Agency of Education, and that will be done on Monday. In any case, we plan to provide some level of food service from our schools regardless of the red tape.
3. We don’t yet know what the impact will be on some of our families if school is closed for an extended period of time. If schools close, there is every likelihood that area daycare programs will also be closed. I am concerned about our students who live in homes where the parent(s) have to work and may also be struggling with caring for their children. I understand that employers are also concerned that in some cases their workers will not be able to come to work because there is no one to care for the kids at home. I don’t think this is a problem that we can directly solve, but it worries me.
4. If we close for an extended period of time, we will need to provide instruction in some form. I have heard a lot of people say, “Just do online learning,” which may be effective for high school students who live in homes with reliable internet service, but it doesn’t help students who have no service. Extending online learning down into the lower grades will work to a certain point, with the same concerns about reliable internet access applying for them as well. Online learning for students in the very early grades is not feasible. So, I am expecting some sort of hybrid solution. Every one of the schools in CCSU is in one stage or another of planning for this eventuality.
5. Students who receive special services present another challenge. Federal regulation is very clear that if we offer instructional services to regular education students we have to offer specialized instruction to students who have IEPs or Section 504 plans. On its face, this is a daunting requirement, and it creates a perverse situation for us – we can avoid the need to provide specialized instruction by simply not providing any instruction to anyone at all, but that thought does not sit well with me. It might be acceptable if we knew the closure would be short-term, say two weeks or less, but as I said I have no idea how long a closure order will be in effect.
As I said, we are hearing from more and more people who have concerns about our not having closed the schools. I understand that people are nervous, but I do not think it is wise to ignore the advice of our public health experts. That said, I will not be surprised if this all comes to a head in the next few days and we have our guidance from the Agency of Education and the Department of Health. One thing I will absolutely continue to resist is making this decision on a school by school basis. If any of the schools in CCSU close, they will all close.
In the meantime, all seven schools have been working on plans that are sensitive to their specific communities and the needs of their families. My Leadership Team is assembling first thing Monday morning to review the state of affairs vis a vis school closure, and I will continue to update all of you as things unfold.
Finally, while some of you are concerned that we have not closed the schools and have expressed those concerns directly to me, I am grateful that you are expressing yourself in a thoughtful, polite manner. I am also grateful to the many people who have written just to say “thanks for keeping us informed.”
Mark Tucker, M.A.
Superintendent, Caledonia Central SU
Note: This is the fourth in a series of newsletters as we learn about the the impact of Coronavirus in our schools and communities.
Disclaimer: Nothing in this newsletter is meant to substitute for medical advice from your family practitioner