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Back to school in Vermont: What educators say about buses, flood recovery and COVID-19

Vermont students are getting ready to head back to school tomorrow.

It's back to school week for kids across the state. Vermont Edition is getting ready by talking to education providers and administrators about how they're helping kids access school and stay healthy this fall.

Bus driver shortages

Making sure students can access and engage with education is a major concern to administrators and educators, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic.

One thing that can make that difficult is transportation. Vermont has been facing bus driver shortages for a while now. Interim Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey said this is reflective of a larger workforce issue in the state and in New England.

Bouchey said the education sector is also seeing vacancies with substitutes, paraeducators and core educators.

Bouchey said the state is doing everything they can to work towards filling these vacancies, including partnering with national "Grow Your Own" programs.

"From a state perspective, we're doing everything we can to make sure that we're marketing our state as a great place to be, as a safe place to be. Because, again, this is this is part of a broader workforce shortage challenge that, again, is across many sectors, if not all sectors in the state," Bouchey said.

There is not a legal requirement for schools to provide transportation. However, Bouchey said that school districts have often decided to provide it because it's a successful way to get kids to school.

"Despite the lack of a legal premise that requires districts to actually provide transportation through busing for all students, most of them, particularly in our rural areas, have realized, rightfully so, that the best way to get students to school is to provide some transportation for them," Bouchey said.

Equity in schools

Bouchey also spoke to the ongoing conversations of equity rules applied to public and independent — or private — schools in the state; specifically, the topic of independent schools receiving public money.

A working group earlier this year proposed equity measures for private and public schools to the state Board of Education, but they were only implemented for public schools.

More fromVTDigger:At Vermont’s State Board of Education, another clash over private schools

Bouchey said the state Board of Education has to work within the statutory framework set by Title 16.

"Given the statutory framework that the state Board of (Education) has to work with, they would have been overstepping their legal right, or their legal boundary, to actually apply (Education Quality Standards) to independent schools. And I think that's a really important distinction that's getting lost in the mix," Bouchey said.

However, Bouchey did mention that the legal and regulatory landscape for independent schools receiving public money changed this July. Now, independent schools in the state must provide special education services to students to receive public dollars.

Mental health (and flood impacts)

Students across the state were impacted by flooding this summer. While some were physically displaced from their homes, others still faced indirect impacts. And the unpredictability of the summer, on top of mental health impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, schooling can be a stressful place for kids.

Nick Conner is a community liaison for Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools. His job is to work with students and families to ensure students have access to schools — both physically and emotionally.

"The distance between home and school for some young people is a really long and bumpy road. And there's a lot of barriers that young people may face to engaging in school," Conner said. "I'm working with our families, really working to shorten that distance between home and school, and ensure that young people have what they need to meaningfully engage in our schools."

Conner said his job this summer when it came to flooding was to let families know that education wasn't something they had to worry about.

"There's not a lot of things that we can physically do in the aftermath of such a large natural disaster here. But from a school district perspective, we wanted folks to know 'School is not a piece that you need to stress about right now. You are our community, you are our students. And we are here to support you,'" Conner said.

Conner said that families in the Montpelier-Roxbury district that were displaced due to flooding would still have access to school. Conner expects the number of students in the district facing housing insecurity could show a slight increase after flooding. He predicts upwards of 30-40 students could be facing housing insecurity this school year.

Conner emphasized that making school feel safe and predictable is something he does through his job, too, especially through home visits and connecting with students. The feeling of predictability can help with mental health in students in the long run.

"It's tough, and it is having a significant impact on many of our students," Conner said. "You just start really slow. But we also want to hold high expectations as well. In the long run, having those high expectations, that predictability, getting into routines — those go a really long way in supporting our whole student body, especially those young people that may have some anxiety about the school year not being predictable, and not knowing what's coming at them. Those are essential components to supporting our students."

Conner is excited to get kids back in the school buildings tomorrow, especially because it can provide students a reinforced sense of safety and predictability after this summer.

More fromNPR:3 years since the pandemic wrecked attendance, kids still aren't showing up to school

Staying healthy

Fall is back to school season, but it also means it's the season of some common sicknesses. And with COVID-19 cases increasing nationally, it's important for students returning to school to stay healthy.

Bouchey said there is not currently any new guidance on COVID-19 in schools.

"One of the, I guess, silver linings of having gone through two years of the COVID emergency prior to this school year is that we're pretty seasoned in terms of knowing how to actually manage another outbreak of COVID. So at this point, we'll be relying on the same guidance and the same directives that ... we put in place in prior years," Bouchey said.

Kelly Landwehr, the president of VT School Nurses Association, said nurses will not be testing for COVID-19 in schools, since COVID-19 is no longer a state emergency.

Landwehr said some schools may still have tests to send back with kids, but they are still waiting to hear if they'll receive more supplies this year.

Landwehr said prevention of illness, including RSV and the common cold, is important in schools. Physical, social and emotional wellness all work together.

"Implementing proactive, preventive practices at home are so important. That includes keeping kids hydrated, getting enough sleep, eating good foods, and definitely getting outside, getting some exercise. And also just doing things individually and as a family that bring you joy and keep you well from a social, emotional standpoint, too, because that's going to promote physical wellness," Landwehr said.

Landwehr said families should communicate with school nurses and implement preventative practices at home to help in keeping kids healthy this fall. Washing hands or managing chronic illnesses at home can help.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.