Education

Covid closed Vermont schools hundreds of times last year. How did that affect kids?

Note: This story is more than a week old. Given how quickly the Covid-19 pandemic is evolving, we recommend that you read our latest coverage here.

Roxbury
Roxbury Village School

For seven days during the 2021-22 school year, the Roxbury Village School, a small pre-K-4th grade school, did not have enough students present to open. 

On those seven days, over 70% of the school’s 47 students were “in quarantine because of Covid exposure,” a Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools official wrote to the state. 

Another day, the school closed because the weather was too cold to open windows or send students outside, “making it impossible to provide Covid mitigation measures.” The school was also closed for a ninth day because too many staff members were sick with the virus.

Those nine closures were among hundreds of days during the 2021-22 school year when a Vermont public school closed or was missing at least half of its students, according to state data provided to VTDigger through a public records request. 

Many schools in Vermont missed only a handful of days during that school year, or a number equivalent to pre-Covid years. Some schools provided remote instruction when in-school days were canceled. 

But the data highlights the turbulence that schools faced as students returned to classrooms full-time amid a series of new Covid-19 variants, shifting state guidance, and widespread staffing challenges

“It was really, really a stressful time,” said Libby Bonesteel, superintendent of Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools, of her district’s Covid surges.

Under Vermont law, public schools are required to be in session for 175 days during a single school year. A majority of the school’s students must also be in attendance for a day to count. 

Schools are also required to include at least five “contingency days,” usually seen as built-in snow days. 

But if a school has to close “for cause beyond the control of the school board,” the law says, administrators can ask the state to excuse those closures. Essentially, state officials decide whether to allow a school to miss a day, or to require administrators to add makeup days. 

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, waiver requests had to be approved by the State Board of Education, although in the spring of 2020, the board gave the secretary of education the authority to grant waivers. 

Before the pandemic, such requests were rare, state officials said. 

“During my entire time on the board, we've never done anything with that,” said Oliver Olsen, chair of the State Board of Education and a member since 2018. “Nobody’s ever come to us and asked for a waiver.”

Ted Fisher, a spokesperson for the Vermont Agency of Education, estimated that state officials received fewer than 10 waiver requests a year before Covid. 

Over the 2021-22 year, though, administrators at more than 100 schools requested waivers for about 320 days when schools were closed or missing at least half of their students, according to Agency of Education data. (The exact figure was unclear due to differing data formats.)

State officials granted all the waivers that schools asked for, said Ted Fisher, a spokesperson for the Agency of Education.

“The vast majority were only for a few days below the statutory 175,” Fisher said, noting that “school districts have done an incredible job of Covid-19 mitigation, planning and (maintaining) in-person learning.”

Missing school days 

In March 2020, Vermont schools shifted entirely online in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. During the 2020-21 school year, individual districts had the option of conducting remote or in-person instruction, or a hybrid method. Superintendents could also choose to shut down in-person learning or classrooms “after consulting with the Department of Health,” according to state guidance. 

But during the 2021-22 school year, schools were told to bring students back for full-time, in-person learning. 

For some schools, Covid-19 did not bring major calendar disruptions. During the 2021-22 school year, many schools were in session for the mandated 175 days. Some schools met the 175-day requirement but petitioned the Agency of Education for waivers anyway, for reasons that were not clear, Fisher said.  

Some schools also noted in their requests that they provided online instruction to students at home during the closures. 

And not all of the closures were directly related to Covid-19. In the Lamoille North Supervisory Union, officials asked the Agency of Education to excuse a Feb. 1 closure at Lamoille Union Middle and High Schools, located in Hyde Park, because of threats made on social media. Bad weather and infrastructure repairs also canceled some school days. 

But, like the Roxbury Village School, some schools applied for over a week’s worth of waivers for lost days due to the virus. In the Kingdom East School District, Superintendent Jen Botzojorns applied for a waiver for a total of 51 lost days across seven schools in her district. 

“On some days, there were students in person (but less than 50%); on some days all students were absent,” Botzojorns wrote to state officials in a waiver request, noting that the district had provided remote instruction on those days. 

In the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, Superintendent Andrew Haas asked that nine days be waived at Saxtons River Elementary School because of “Covid, quarantine from close contact, and most recently a sprinkler developed a hole and leaked, resulting in a need to repair which took three days.”

In an earlier waiver request, a school official noted that contact tracing had identified a Saxtons River staff member who “had potentially had contact with 82% of the school.” The district provided remote learning, with nearly 100% attendance, during most of the closures, Haas wrote. 

‘An uncertain situation’

It’s impossible to identify a direct effect of the closures “as compared to the academic or mental health and socioemotional impacts of other areas of pandemic learning,” said Fisher, the Agency of Education spokesperson.

State officials have urged Vermonters not to read too much into academic and test score data released during the pandemic, but acknowledged that many students have struggled over the past few years.  

Fisher said that helping schools and students recover from the prior two years is expected “to be the Agency's primary focus as we transition to an endemic Covid-19.”

Don Tinney, president of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, the teachers union, said that many educators are not preoccupied with students losing ground academically.

“I'm not hearing the doom and gloom that some folks are reporting,” he said. “I don't think that most educators see their students as being behind. Right? They are where they are. And we need to continue to move forward.”

But Bonesteel, of the Montpelier-Roxbury district, said she worried that frequent school closures were effectively “forcing people into chronic absenteeism.”

Repeated lost school days require teachers to work more to “restart routines, restart building community, restart getting kids to talk to each other in an appropriate way,” she said. “That takes away from forward momentum and social emotional learning or academic learning. So at Roxbury Village School, that happened quite a bit.”

Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals Association, said children’s social and emotional health has emerged as his most serious concern of the past few school years. Missing a handful of days is not in and of itself cause for alarm, he said, but the school disruptions of the past few years have taken a toll on kids’ mental health. 

“When there's an uncertain situation, there's not your normal structure, it's really tough on children. And school provides a lot of structure,” he said. “Normally.”

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Peter D'Auria

About Peter

Peter D’Auria covers education for VTDigger. Prior to moving to Vermont, he worked for The Jersey Journal, The Chilkat Valley News and Willamette Week. He is originally from Portland, Oregon.

Email: [email protected]

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