'Very, Very Cautious': Vt. Teachers Union President On How The School Year Is Going
K-12 schools have been back in session in Vermont for about a month and a half. And so far, there have been few cases of COVID-19 connected to schools: 13 cases in total, according to the latest numbers from the Health Department.
Transmission of the virus within school buildings has only been confirmed at one location so far. These numbers are considerably better than what some feared before the school year started. One group that was critical of the state's approach to school reopening was the state's teachers union, the Vermont NEA.
For his perspective on how this pandemic school year is going so far, Vermont NEA President Don Tinney spoke with VPR’s Henry Epp. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: You were critical of the Scott administration's approach to school reopening guidance before the start of the year. Given that case numbers among K-12 students have been quite low so far, how would you grade the state's approach to reopening now?
Don Tinney: I think our members have worked really hard to make the school reopening work as well as it has worked. I think the one element that has let us be successful is the low community spread of the virus, and that is why we've been able to reopen as successfully as we have.
In hindsight now, do you feel like it was at all wrong to raise the alarm about preparations for the new school year, now that we see the cases have been so low in schools?
I think we had reason to be concerned, and I think we still have reasons to be concerned. We've been real lucky that we haven't had the outbreaks that many of our counterparts have in the other states.
And many of the things that we have raised were addressed in local districts, and we've done well in making sure that our schools are safe for students and for school employees.
So what are some of the concerns that you still have with how schools are operating right now with health guidelines for COVID-19?
Well, I think one of the most important things to remember is that we are not through this, right? That this is – I can't even say that we're in the middle of the pandemic. And, you know, it's how do we sustain these efforts? How do we sustain all the protocols?
In addition to the stress and anxiety around the possibilities of infection, our members right now are experiencing a tremendous overload in their work assignments. The hybrid model looked really good on paper, but it's very difficult to implement when you have some students in person with you in the classroom, some students working at home part-time, and then other students working from home full-time.
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Well, so what is it then that teachers need right now in terms of managing that hybrid format for, you know, potentially many more months to come in this school year?
That's a great question, and that's one that we're trying to answer. One of the things that's obvious that they need is, they need more time for planning. Because essentially what many of our educators are doing right now is that they're planning for not just one course, but essentially planning for three different classes at a time.
And so it's almost impossible to keep up with all the activities that they have to plan for. For instance, you know, a 15-minute video that students can watch online may take hours to create on the part of the teacher. So we definitely need to have an additional time for planning and additional support in that area.
"As people are getting more comfortable and feeling more secure, are they getting more lax in following the guidelines? And we have anecdotal evidence that, you know, that is what's happening." — Don Tinney, Vermont NEA President
So prior to the school year, you'd pushed for a unified approach to reopening schools at the state level rather than leaving many decisions up to individual districts. Do you still feel like districts need more guidance or requirements from the state level to keep school communities safe?
I definitely think so. I think particularly in the areas of the health and safety guidelines, which remain recommendations, and many of us are concerned that they really should be requirements.
We see this in terms of physical distancing. It was initially, the requirement was 6 feet to physically distance properly. And now we know that there are some students [at] 2.5-3 feet. I was just talking to a teacher yesterday who has 25 students in a classroom, and the students are 2.5-3 feet away from each other, and that's not what the intention was. So, I think we need to be really clear about what the requirements are.
From what you're seeing and hearing, are teachers and staff and students continuing to follow the guidelines that are in place? As things go on, people might get more comfortable with just the interactions within the classroom. I mean, do you feel like people are still following the rules as they should be?
Well, you articulated one of our concerns. As people are getting more comfortable and feeling more secure, are they getting more lax in following the guidelines? And we have anecdotal evidence that, you know, that is what's happening. That, you know, “We've been safe, we have very few outbreaks, so maybe we don't really need the masks right now, maybe, you know, we can get closer.” And that is a concern, certainly a real concern.
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So what do you think the response then should be either from individual districts or from the Agency of Education as a whole?
Well, I think so much of it is up to every employee, every student, every family member, every administrator to remain vigilant and to continue the practices that we know work. And I think it's really important that we do that hard work of maintaining physical distancing, staying home when we have symptoms and those types of things, you know, constantly hand-washing. And … we need to continue to do that.
Do you agree with the move that's been made in the last few weeks towards more in-person learning now that case numbers have been fairly low in schools? Do you think that's the right step?
I think you would find that almost every one of our educators want to return to full-time in-person learning. But is it going to be safe? And we're making this change about bringing more students, and at the same time, we're seeing more cases being reported.
So, you know, I think we have to be very, very cautious, because if you can't bring students back and maintain proper physical distancing, then that creates vulnerability for everyone.
Again, we definitely want to see more and more students in school full-time. But it has to be done in a safe way. As you've mentioned, when we talk about getting comfortable, more relaxed, we don't want to get so comfortable that we're putting students and staff at risk if we all of a sudden see a spike in cases.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.
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