Reporter’s notebook: For schools, pandemic changed everything

Reporter’s notebook: For schools, pandemic changed everything

Lola Duffort
VTDigger’s education reporter Lola Duffort covers the reaction to a plan to close three state college campuses. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Before Covid, Vermont’s education officials often complained of “initiative fatigue,” a sense that schools were overwhelmed by a never-ending onslaught of reform ideas.

There was district consolidation, of course, but also proficiency-based learning, personalized learning plans, and universal pre-kindergarten, among others. In the backdrop, meanwhile, cracks had become apparent in the foundation – both physical and financial – of Vermont’s schools. 

Dwindling enrollments called into question the viability of small, rural schools. And after a decades-long disinvestment in buildings, school boards and superintendents were sounding the alarm about a bill that would soon come due. A special education overhaul was in the offing.

At the Statehouse, lawmakers were sympathetic. At the start of the legislative session in January, the chairs of the House and Senate education committees made a pledge of sorts: no new ideas. We promise.

“I’m trying my best to make sure that the big things that we’ve done over the last five or six years continue without imploding,” Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, told VTDigger at the time. 

A pandemic brewing some 7,000 miles away would bring a change of plans.

By necessity, Vermont’s schools reinvented themselves basically overnight. Reformers, consultants, politicians, and the like have been stumbling over themselves for decades to bring change and innovation to America’s schools. The pandemic has proved the most impactful – and destructive – change agent of all.

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Educators have risen to the occasion, and everything has been remade in the pandemic’s image: graduations, cleaning protocols, lunchtime, schedules. Meals were delivered home on buses. With poor internet at home, teachers taught from their cars. When kids disengaged, counselors knocked on doors. And with poor ventilation a risk for spreading the virus, some schools brought the classroom outdoors. 

In one classroom I visited, each student got their own five-gallon bucket to store their supplies. On nice days, the class learned outside, and used those same buckets as seats.

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In Vermont, people have “grit.” Or they are “resilient,” the favored term in trauma-informed parlance. They make do.

It’s possible that this great experiment in education will open the door to some positive, long-term change. Advocates already hope that it will serve as proof of concept for universal free meals in schools. Counselors who did home visits told me they plan to carry over the practice. 

Speaking to high school students earlier this fall, I was surprised by how many said they liked the autonomy and flexibility that learning from home part-time afforded them. And maybe a post-pandemic high school may be more likely to truly embrace individualized learning, untethered from seat-time in a classroom. 

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But countless students – especially those vulnerable, pre-pandemic, to being left behind – are not alright. (Even those succeeding in hybrid learning reported feeling deeply isolated, at times unmotivated, and yearning for more one-on-one support.)

And neither are their teachers.

“Never have I worked so hard & felt like such a failure,” Christie Nold, a teacher in South Burlington, wrote in one viral Tweet. I haven’t spoken to a single educator this year that hasn’t expressed some version of this sentiment.

Vermont enjoyed a beautiful summer and early fall. It wasn’t Covid-free, but numbers were low enough that many of us let our guard down. Reopening schools was a fraught and uneven process, but once schools opened, and with case counts staying low, a sense of normalcy briefly returned.

And then case counts ticked upward. And then they surged. So many schools were closing temporarily that it became routine, not news. It’s been weeks (maybe months) since I wrote a story – or even a quick news brief – about an individual school closing down in response to Covid cases. If I did so in a systematic way, it would be nearly all I did. And that’s despite Vermont still maintaining one of the lowest positivity rates in the nation.

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I have been thinking a lot of the concept of shifting baselines – about what counts as normal if a situation gets steadily and progressively worse. In a normal year, Burlington’s high school students being sent to learn in a defunct shopping mall because of chemical pollutants would have been the education story of the year. Not so in 2020.

That’s brought me back to the idea of resilience. Vermont’s schools, students, parents and teachers have shown a remarkable ability to bend, adapt, to get creative in the face of once-unimaginable adversity.

But maybe “resilience” puts too positive a spin on it. Maybe this is just survival.

Like most everyone, I am cautiously optimistic about what 2021 will bring, eager for a vaccine and to leave this disastrous year behind. But I do worry about what the lessons learned in this pandemic will have cost us.

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