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A Break, a Rush, and Then a Longer Break

     I started noticing the first couple of years in this role how there would be a mad rush from many folks to try to get a ton of things started or on the radar right before vacations began.  Maybe this was due to concern that they’d be forgotten over the course of a break (by themselves or the person from whom they needed help), or maybe it’s because everyone needs to tie things up before going away so they can really forget about the usual paces of work/school life.  What I also have noticed is that we typically think the stretch between Thanksgiving and the long December vacation will be a calm stretch but is always in fact a wild one as well!
     This December so far is no different, but with good reason.  And that’s because we’ve been working on scenario planning pretty much non-stop since 11 a.m. Monday morning, taking into consideration all of the input we’ve collected from faculty, students, and parents/guardians, measuring institutional capacity, looking for balance between the need for academic integrity and social and emotional health of our community, and reviewing public health data and projections, from Vermont caseload and positivity rates to national COVID trends in middle and high schools, to the emerging vaccine narrative.
     What we heard loud and clear in our faculty surveys from the last week in October are concerns about 1) the most efficacious way to stay on track with student growth and success in terms of curriculum, content, and skills,  2) concerns about their own safety and well being, and  3) concern about the same with their students.  Given that the CDC earlier this week reiterated that teachers and school employees are on the second most urgent tier for covid vaccines because they categorize teachers as “front line workers,” it’s no surprise that the more prospective scenarios on that faculty survey included time in the building, the higher the faculty discomfort with the scenarios grew.  Keep in mind that unlike the students and parents/guardians, the Faculty took their survey before the Vermont surge in cases began.
     On the other hand, we also heard loud and clear in the student surveys and the parent/guardian surveys  1) strong satisfaction with the consistency and thoroughness of how their teachers are getting them through the coursework of the year,  2) the strong, heartfelt desire for any core classes together in person with their classmates that could be added, and  3) an appreciation of and support for the need to do this carefully, wisely, and safely.  These surveys were largely completed once the surge was underway and as many Vermont schools were closing due to student and faculty cases and community transmission within the schools.
     So our job this week has been to seek out that balance:  to find a scenario in which faculty feel and are as safe as can be and in which students’ class-based social interactions with classmates can migrate to being partially in-person, for those who wish it.  This is, of course, tough in the midst of a surge and as winter gets going;  but perhaps not insurmountable.  That’s what we’ve been looking for.  We know we are nailing, in terms of the curriculum.  As teachers at many schools are now calling 2020-21 a “throwaway year” and lamenting the fact that they  have had essentially to let go of meeting their annual learning targets for their students, our faculty have kept our students on track for next year, whether that’s college or high school readiness, or simply making sure they’re on track so that we don’t have to alter our curriculum–and the long-term learning path of our students–for years to come.  But we also know from you that it’s just simply not enough to say that we’re going to stay with this model through mid-June.  Your implicit question is, “Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?”
     That there is some immensely promising information coming out about vaccines says, “Yes.”  That the CDC indicates school employees will get the vaccine as one of the earliest populations to do so says, “Yes.”  But you also need to hear “yes” from us, and that’s precisely what we’ve been working on and should have concrete, specific, detailed information about for you mid-week next week.  Sure, that’s a conditional “yes.”  Vermont had 178 cases yesterday and a troublingly increasing positivity rate, so we all know it’s entirely possible that the Governor will shut all schools (or all Middle and High Schools) for a stretch this winter.  And our COVID-fighting HVAC upgrade won’t be completed until the first week of February.  But what we are working on is a plan that balances all of this–learning, safety, social/emotional well being, and real-time public health conditions–and in so doing responds to your input satisfyingly, reasonably, and well.
     We are a community of strong opinions.  We are a community that expects our voices to be listened to.  That’s Vermont.  It’s what makes this place special–engagement and the value of every voice having a place to be heard.  At times confusion arises from this because community members can forget that their voices being heard doesn’t always equate with their opinions being enacted.  I encourage everyone to keep this in mind as we move through this process and the spring semester–that your truth is not everyone’s truth.  You should know that both the student and parent/guardian surveys indicated a wide breadth of opinion.  A large segment of you absolutely do not want any in-person instruction at Vermont Commons until the full vaccination process is completed across our country.  Some of you absolutely want us back in the building full-time tomorrow, some of you stating that we should not wear masks but return to the way we were last February.  Our dream is to find a solution that makes all of you happy.   Our burden is that we know we may make several of you unhappy, or worse.  Our hope is that you will instead join us in appreciating the challenges and accompany us on a middle path that is workable, that is responsive to the changing needs of our community at this time, and that is, “yes,” real and increasing light at the end of the tunnel, enough light to keep us all going.
     Solstice is coming soon.  Just two and a half weeks away, with all that it brings and reminds us of.  The turning of the year.
     Stay safe and be well,
Dr. Dexter Mahaffey, Head of School

Scholarship. Community. Global Responsibility.

At Vermont Commons School, our goal is to engage students with their world. We achieve this through programs and a curriculum grounded in local and global involvement.