Schools in Vermont are in crisis. Educators say the stress within the system is something they have never encountered. Not at this level. Teachers are burned out. Students are recoiling from the effects of the pandemic, both past and present. Parents are struggling to balance unending needs and demands. Administrators are being asked to perform beyond their skill sets and without the necessary help.
And it’s barely October. The weather is still warm. Winter’s clutches are still more than a month away [knock on wood.] If it’s bad now, what can we expect when we’re inside and the darkness closes in?
Conversations with local and state educators are troubling. Classroom conflicts are the norm. Teachers struggle to maintain decorum. Administrators contend that students have lost one year, if not two years, of emotional and behavioral maturity, courtesy of the pandemic. Any problems at home are problems brought to the classroom; administrators are less worried about their students’ academic progress than they are their students’ emotional and behavioral health. We are learning the hard way that one’s mental health is as important as one’s physical health.
This is foreign territory to most Vermonters; two out of every three households in Vermont have no children. It’s hard for them to relate. Why are things so challenging?
Part of the challenge is exactly that: Schools operate in a rules-oriented environment. It’s also dominated by routine. Follow the rules and the routine and things should proceed with a sense of normality. So why the issues?
But COVID-19 threw everything off the rails. When administrators, teachers and students returned to school this year they returned tired, and disoriented. There was no fresh start, as desperately as we all wished it were so. On top of that, expectations were raised. Parents wanted the lost time made up. Students are stressed that they are behind. On top of it all, state directives were showered upon their heads, all with the exhortation that we were within reach of the goal line. Be patient, just a little more.
But that’s not the case. The stress the pandemic has caused goes far beyond the number of cases, and the rate of infection, and how many people we’ve lost and how many are in the ICU. It will be years before we know the totality of the damage caused.
But for the moment, the challenge facing our schools’ ability to function should be uppermost in our minds. It’s a challenge that needs to be led by Gov. Phil Scott. Not only is it an issue of resources, and the need to clarify areas of responsibility, it’s an issue of collaboration and the need to unify around the core responsibly of our educational system, which is to provide a safe environment for the education of our students. It’s also an issue of being heard.
No individual has a stronger standing amongst Vermonters than Mr. Scott. Most Vermonters trust his guidance thus far; hence our success against the virus.There is also a natural reluctance on Mr. Scott’s part - and his administration - to reject the thought of two steps forward and one backward. In today’s world a step backward becomes political fodder for the opposition.
In the case of our schools, it was a mistake to think we could resume the school year without the travails. We are behind. So let’s deal with it.
There are 60 superintendents in Vermont. Not a big crowd. The governor should call them together and listen to them. Listen to what their challenges are and ask what can be done to help. This is one instance in which leading means turning over the podium to those who are on the front line.
Not only is it important for educators to know they have been heard, it’s a message of collaboration that goes beyond the classroom. We all have our roles. What, as a community, can we do better to support our schools, our teachers and our students?
It’s easy to ditch the thought, just like it would be easy for the governor to follow normal channels, turning responsibilities for our schools over to Secretary of Education Dan French and calling it a day.
But how’s that working out?
The crisis that stalks our schools is not all that different from the crises faced by our institutions. It’s a reflection of the public’s doubt of the ability of government to perform when needed, and in a way that is beneficial. When our governing institutions appear impotent, the public’s cynicism grows. That is a lethal combination. It becomes easier to tear things down than to build things up. Add to that the poor way we treat one another - in our social media worlds - and it becomes clear why we can’t allow ourselves to be pushed by the inertia that exists.
By Emerson Lynn