Teachers in Vermont will return to work mid-August, with their students following the week after. That’s roughly six weeks away. The Vermont-NEA is questioning whether our schools will be ready and it’s asking for a commission to put together a plan that meets the needs of educators, parents, students and school employees.

At first blush the union’s request is basically common sense. It’s a request for procedure, to answer the questions that will be asked of educators in general. Will masks be required for students? Who takes their temperatures? Will there be football in the fall? How do schools deal with the parents who refuse to send their children back to school? Will schools have the resources to do what’s necessary to keep their schools clean? Are staffing levels sufficient? Will there be enough money?

Don Tinney, president of the state’s NEA chapter, is quoted as saying: “It’s important for parents and employers as well as educators to accept the reality that we may not be ready to return to school before Labor Day. I think we have to accept that fact.”

Mr. Tinney said there were too many unanswered questions: “There are lines in the guidelines that say ‘wherever feasible’ or ‘whenever feasible.’ Well, how does the local school district interpret that?”

It’s a given that all school districts, and the Agency of Education, should involve their teachers in the planning required to return the state to its in-person model of education. They are the people responsible for what happens in the classroom and they are the ones who know their students and their needs. It’s hard to believe their counsel hasn’t been sought.

But Mr. Tinney also needs to accept that all questions can’t be fully answered. There is no plan that can be put into place that checks every box. To insist on that need is destructive, it’s allowing perfection to be the enemy of the good.

The Covid-19 landscape is completely fluid. We can’t know today what the circumstances will be in mid-August, let alone later on in the fall. A degree of flexibility is required. Circumstances also vary from school district to school district. What’s good for Burlington may not work for Fletcher or schools in the Northeast Kingdom where the case load has been almost nil.

What’s needs to anchor the planning process is the commitment to reopening our schools to in-person teaching this fall. Instead of focusing on impediments, let’s focus on solutions. Most teachers agree with this objective. They understand better than anyone else that an unacceptable percentage of our students didn’t, or couldn’t, participate in the remote learning process this spring. The union needs to buy into that sentiment.

Whatever plan is devised it will be a hybrid of what a traditional setting looks like and what we had from mid-March to the end of the school year. Not all parents will be willing to send their children back to school in August. But they will still expect their children to receive an education. This could be problematic for schools in areas that experience Covid outbreaks, which is why any plan would need to include contingencies.

What’s most essential is that the process leading to the plan’s development be fully transparent. There is no part of our society more pivotal to our prosperity than our schools and it will take the cooperation of all factions to make this work the way it should. The Vt.- NEA needs to signal the same level of intent. That’s the “fact” we should expect.

by Emerson Lynn

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