BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. — The Windham Northeast Supervisory Union voted 6-2 to open the 2020-2021 academic year under a hybrid instructional model with an alternative choice to learn fully remotely.
The plan allows students in grades K-12 to attend school two days a week and learn remotely three days a week. Students will be divided into smaller cohorts and alternate days of attending school. Wednesdays will be a remote learning day for all students.
The hybrid instructional model received strong resistance from Rockingham School Board member Priscilla Lambert whose board on Monday, in a non-binding motion, voted 3-2 to direct Superintendent Christopher Pratt to reopen Rockingham’s schools to full in-person instruction.
“I don’t think two days of instruction [per week] provides nearly the educational program I would want my child to be in,” Lambert said.
The supervisory union representatives are from three school boards: the Rockingham School District; Bellows Falls Union High School; and the Windham Northeast Union Elementary School District, which serves the communities of Athens, Grafton and Westminster.
Lambert contested that under Vermont’s opening guidelines only the school districts have the jurisdiction to approve opening plans, not the supervisory union.
“School districts, and only school districts, have the authority,” Lambert said. “So asking for a vote tonight is not something we should even be doing. It’s not a legal option.”
According to Pratt, the districts must share the same plan since the participating communities share many of the same resources. The supervisory union board is the appropriate authority to approve a reopening plan because it comprises representatives from all the districts.
Jack Bryar, chairman of the Grafton-Athens-Westminster elementary school board, said that the districts need to have only one plan, which should be the hybrid instructional model, despite being a vocal advocate for local board control.
“We can’t have a different plan for each school and we can’t build four different programs,” Bryar said. “We don’t have the bandwidth for it and I don’t think it’s a good idea anyway.”
The meeting was held over Zoom and drew more than 200 community members.
Parents and educators spoke in overwhelming support for the hybrid instructional model and rebuked the Rockingham School Board for its push to fully reopen schools.
“Three Rockingham board members think we should ignore the experts and open school 100% almost immediately,” said Bill Scarlett, a Rockingham parent and school guidance counselor. “The board should listen to the medical experts and support the hybrid model.”
Andrea Carlson, a Westminster parent and educator, said she was “scared” by the Rockingham board’s proposal. Bellows Falls Middle School, where Carlson’s daughter attends, is part of the Rockingham district. Carlson said the classrooms are too small to provide the social distancing recommended by health officials and the school’s lack of air conditioning, when combined with students wearing masks, would only exacerbate air circulation in a fully attended classroom.
“If Rockingham does go to a full reopening in week two, I will use my school choice to find another middle school,” Carlson said, encouraging other parents to do the same.
While many board members expressed worry about unanswered questions in the plan, such as available staffing to administer daily temperature checks and what the classroom setups will look like, the members deemed it important to approve the plan so the district can move forward. Timing was also critical because Tuesday, Aug. 11, is Vermont’s deadline to enroll students into the remote learning program, so the district needed plan approval before asking families for their preference.
Windham Northeast Supervisory Union Board Vice Chair Deborah Wright and Lambert voted against the hybrid learning proposal.
Rockingham School Board chair resigns
Immediately after the Rockingham board’s vote on Monday, Rockingham School Board Chair Rick Holloway, in protest to the decision, announced his immediate resignation from the board.
“I don’t feel this board has the best interest of our students, our teachers, our staff and our community at hand,” Holloway told board members. “I’ve been hanging on by a thread for the longest time to get through all this and work with you all directly. This [decision] is totally against what the public has asked for.”
Holloway, who has served on the board for 10 years, submitted his letter of resignation to Pratt on Tuesday.