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'Chronic Unpredictability': Vermont Teachers Union On Returning To The Classroom

On the first day of in-person learning at Milton Elementary School, the hallways were empty but featured floor decals that encouraged social distancing and directed students to move in one direction.
Abagael Giles
On the first day of in-person learning at Milton Elementary School, the hallways were empty but featured floor decals that encouraged social distancing and directed students to move in one direction.

Across Vermont, students are returning to classrooms this week, though teachers and staff have been preparing for some time now. It's going to be an unusual year for everyone.

And things will look very different from district to district. In some, learning will be fully in-person. In a few, it's going to be done entirely remotely. But most districts and schools are adopting some sort of hybrid model. It's all been the center of big debates over safety for kids, parents, teachers and staff.

Jake Rusnock spoke with Don Tinney, president of the Vermont NEA Teachers Union, about the state’s approach to reopening schools during COVID-19. Tinney is also an English teacher. Their interview is below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jake Rusnock: What have you been hearing from teachers about how they feel about the start of instruction this year?

Don Tinney: Well, I think most of our members are very excited and happy to get back into the classroom with their students. But at the same time, they're experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety around COVID-19. And of course, they've been dealing with chronic unpredictability as they prepared for the reopening of school.

Now, do you think students, teachers and staff are safe in the current system?

Well, Dr. Levine has assured us that the virus is suppressed to the point where it is safe to return to

schools. I think it's obviously very important that all the protocols be followed to maintain safety. I think our members are still worried, however, about contracting the virus. And I don't know when that worry can possibly disappear.

More from Vermont Edition: What Vermont Teachers Think About Starting School This Fall

Sure. Now, your union has been very critical of the Scott administration's approach to school reopenings, calling instead for a more unified approach. Do you think that's practical, considering how different school districts and schools across the state face different circumstances?

I think there are certain decisions that could have been made at the state level that would have made it easier for planning purposes. But no matter if you have a statewide plan or not, there is a tremendous amount of work to be done locally. This is a very complex process, to bring students back into school during a pandemic. So it would have been helpful, I believe, in certain areas.

For instance: where we're looking at ventilation issues and having statewide inspections of ventilation. When it comes to making sure there are school nurses in every single school building on a full time basis and how to how to find those nurses, I think it would have been helpful to have some decisions made at the state level.

More from VPR: State Unveils Updated Health Guidance For In-Person Learning At Public Schools

So are you thinking that the schools don't have the resources that they need to meet the safety standards you're calling for?

That's a real question, because in some districts we have heard that the resources are not there. Remember, we have a great disparity in the wealth of districts, and the capacity of districts varies across the state. So it's super important that we check in with all districts and make sure those resources are there. Because some local districts simply don't have the capacity.

More from VPR: 'Spreading Humility' While Learning Remotely During COVID-19

Turning to staffing, there were concerns about staffing shortages coming into this year, with the possibility of teachers retiring or taking leave because they were concerned about COVID-19. Are you seeing that so far?

Yes. Anecdotally, we've had a number of reports of folks who have taken early retirement, or who just simply have resigned or taken extended leaves. So we're facing some shortages, particularly in the area of school bus drivers. We also, of course, need school nurses.

One of the real shortages that we're facing is the shortage of substitute teachers. We had a shortage before the pandemic. And it's going to be a real challenge now because our educators cannot go into work if they're running a fever, or have any symptoms. It's their responsibility to stay home until it's determined that they don't have the virus. So we're going to have a greater need for substitutes at a time when we when we have a shortage of substitutes.

More from Vermont Edition: Back To School: Vermont School Districts Release Plans For Return This Fall

And, Don, finally, before I let you go, how well do you think schools are prepared to meet the needs of special education students this year?

That is one of the very serious challenges that we need to continue to work on. It's a difficult challenge to meet all the needs and particularly those with intense needs. We will continue to work as hard as we can on that, but it's definitely a challenge. Particularly for those students who need more in-person interactions than they can receive remotely.

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Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with Morning News Editor Sam Gale Rosen  @SamGaleRosen.

Copyright 2020 Vermont Public

Sam held multiple positions at Vermont Public Radio for several years, including managing editor of the award-winning programVermont Edition, and morning news editor.
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