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School in the Time of Coronavirus

       Fall is here at last.  October rains, change of leaves, the golden hour before sunset.  Whenever the weather happens to be good, it’s the time for getting that hike or bike in, a stroll by the water or the neighbor’s yard.  Any chance to be out in the warmth is a chance to be taken!
       A handful of you have been reaching out about our fall program and what the rest of the year will look like.  As we said in August, it was very important for us to make sure everyone knew we were making a decision about the program for our fall semester and that we were not making a decision about the whole year.  This largely was due to the fact that many school systems nationally were announcing school-year long closures, and we wanted to make sure that you knew we were reserving the right to change the program in January.  But also this was due to the fact that we naturally, every school year, revisit our schedule and planning for the spring semester as a regular course of operations.  Every November, we start re-writing our academic schedule (i.e., which section of which class meets during which period of the day).  That’s because science classes are semester classes in grades 8 – 12, electives change each semester and rotate by Middle and High School with Arts and Music classes, social studies electives shift for the Juniors and Seniors, etc.  It’s a natural point during which we look at everything again.
       That’s the same this year;  however, looking at everything again means this November is the time we’ll re-examine all scenarios for school in light of the COVID pandemic.  A lot of this is simply studying and seeking advice on the lay of the land of the pandemic at that point.  As winter starts, what do we know about numbers in Vermont, regionally, and nationally at that point?  What has the fall tourist season–the first time the state’s hotels and restaurants have been fully open since the initial lockdown–done in terms of our virus numbers?  How has everyone heading indoors during colder weather impacted things, if at all?  How have schools fared in our state and region, in terms both of students and especially–due to their higher risk–of school employees?  Is there a vaccine?  Is there rapid testing?  Do we have a clearer picture of long-term effects on people who get it?  What headway have we made at that point in terms of treatment protocols?  Have things gotten worse?  We’ll work with the experts again–the CDC, the Vermont Department of Health, epidemiologists and analysts in various fields within and outside our community, including several of you and our alums who work specifically in them–to get the best information.
       And a lot of this review will have to do with our own capacity as a small school community to see what we can do and what we want to do.  Are health and safety protocols refined such that learning would not be compromised by classroom restrictions?  Have we been able to bring the HVAC conditions up to compliance with published COVID Indoor Air Quality guidelines?  Are health conditions such that the Faculty feel safe returning to the building?  Are they such that the majority of parents/guardians feel safe returning their children to the building?  What about the students themselves?  Would our faculty have the time necessary to learn an entirely new kind of teaching–where some students are in the classroom and some are Zooming into the same class at the same time from home?  How does that Hy-Flex model work for field-based education (Encounter Experiences, etc.), which is to say, does the kind of technology exist to broadcast via Zoom (so it’s two-way participation) when a class is mobile and in the field?  Would we need more staffing (covering classes, managing students for compliance with state guidelines, cleaning, bathroom management, etc.)?
       These are just a handful of the questions we’ll need to tackle as we look to the second semester (which starts the third week in January).  Many, many things to think about and work on, and you’ll be involved all the way–surveys, forums, maybe even ad-hoc committees, whatever you have time for and interest in.  Our focus, from the moment we announced our program in late July, has been to put everything we have into making it as excellent as we possibly can.  And it’s taking an enormous amount of time and energy from our dedicated faculty (seasoned teachers at VCS are talking about needing 2 – 3 hours of prep and grading time to each hour of instructional time right now, for example).  Uncompromised academics in this environment is a tall order for both teacher and learner.
       You may have heard me talk about our ability to pivot quickly back into the building with the program of 3.5 days online, 1 day in person, and Friday afternoons flexible, and that’s true (although the work on upgrading our HVAC is likely a Autumn-long endeavor, we’ve discovered).  But I do want to clarify that the conditions leading to that quick of a pivot would be, by necessity, a radical change in conditions, such as an effective, widely dispersed vaccine, readily accessible quick testing, or another unforeseen development.  We do believe that these are possible developments and are watching carefully for them everyday, while keeping an eye daily on the long-term trends as well.  And we truly look forward to working through all of this with you, together.
       We know it’s not easy for students and for you, parents/guardians.  It’s been tough for all of us as well.  But we are all in this together.  And through this struggle, we need to continue to look to each other, to the resilience we build in these children by helping them face adversity in the context of a caring, supportive, and engaged community.
       It is a great pleasure and privilege to be on this journey with you.

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