The Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union will not require students at its six schools to return to full in-person learning for the remainder of the school year, Superintendent Randi Lowe announced this week.
All of the schools currently are offering a hybrid educational option that includes at least four days per week of in-person instruction for students. An additional half-day is provided for students who meet certain criteria, like having parents who are both essential workers or lacking internet access at home.
But roughly 10 percent to 15 percent of BRSU students continue to participate in school exclusively through distance learning, Lowe said in an interview Tuesday. Those students won’t be required to return to in-person instruction for the final eight weeks of the school year.
In a recent memo to two of the supervisory union’s school boards, Lowe cited an uptick in COVID-19 infections in late March that affected the Flood Brook School in Londonderry and the Manchester Elementary-Middle School as a factor in the decision, writing that she does “not believe the conditions related to the virus support a transition to bring all learners back full time.”
“As has been the case all year, some of you will feel relieved with this decision and others will be disappointed,” Lowe wrote in a separate note to the school community. “Please know that there was a lot of time spent considering a host of possibilities and this is the best plan for us at this time.”
In addition to the schools in Londonderry and Manchester, the supervisory union oversees Currier Memorial School in Danby, The Dorset School, Mettawee Community School in West Pawlet and Sunderland Elementary School. None of BRSU’s three school districts operate a high school, instead paying to send those students to independent and public high schools.
Lowe wrote in the community note that, from what she understands, “there may be updated guidance for schools this week (coming from the state), but there will not be a mandate for certain days/hours of programming.”
Lowe said the scheduling choice was “one of the hardest decisions to make this year,” adding that another factor was a sense of responsibility to families of distance learners.
In her memo to the school boards, Lowe highlighted how Wednesdays currently serve as important planning days for teachers.
“We have asked a lot of our teachers including learning a new way of teaching to educate students in different settings and to be flexible when they need to shift to remote instruction,” Lowe wrote. “They are finally in a routine and are feeling more confident and competent, but they need time on Wednesdays to plan and record lessons to reach their learners. I do not want to remove this time from their schedules, as it is critical for them to be teaching all students.”
Though schedules won’t change, BRSU “schools will expand opportunities for students to engage with each other and be outside participating in increased hands-on exploratory learning experiences,” according to Lowe’s note to the community.
Lowe said administrators are now exploring how to expand summer programming opportunities and assessing staff and student interest. The supervisory union secured federal funding that can be used to support the summer activities.
During a Taconic and Green Regional School District board meeting Tuesday night, Lowe was asked what administrators will do if in the fall parents raise concerns about sending their children back to school because they don’t know whether there are unvaccinated teachers who might transmit the virus that causes COVID-19.
Lowe said she does not yet know what the state will advise or require on that front.
“I anticipate that that will be something that the Department of Health will be considering with the Agency of (Education) over the summer,” she said.
Lowe said she cannot ask teachers about their vaccination status “absent any type of statute or legal requirement” and that she does not know the percentage of BRSU teachers who have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Statewide, about 80 percent of people who work in school districts have been vaccinated, Lowe said.
The board in February appealed to state officials to prioritize teachers for vaccinations, framing it as a way to speed the return to in-person learning.