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BELLOWS FALLS — A sharply divided Windham Northeast Supervisory Board voted Wednesday night to accept the recommendation of its nursing staff and adopt remote learning in the weeks after the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.

But the vote was advisory only: individual school boards must vote again on whether to adopt the nurses’ recommendations. Those emergency meetings are slated for Friday and Monday evenings.

During a lengthy debate, watched on Zoom by nearly 100 people, the supervisory union board debated the wisdom of closing the school buildings the week after the holiday breaks, with the nurses saying they were thinking of the students’ safety ahead of academics.

Many students and their families, as well as staff, will likely travel or host out-of-state visitors during the holiday breaks, and the additional week of remote learning will protect the rest of the students and staff, the nurses said.

Nurse Jen Burke said it is clear that parents are not answering daily health surveys honestly when they are asked if they or their children have traveled out of state: the students themselves tell school staff they have been out of state.

As a result, she said, many students are already out of the classroom, either due to signs of illness or they are quarantined because of travel out of state.

She said by switching to remote learning for the week after the holiday breaks, it is more likely that the schools can retain in-person education in the long run.

Kerry Kennedy, the principal at Central Elementary in Bellows Falls, said the school learned about out-of-state travel by some students from social media, and as a result, the school is waiting for “multiple tests” on students.

Kennedy and another administrator, Andrew Haas, noted that the city of Keene, N.H., had switched to remote learning until after the holidays, as did the Fall Mountain school district in New Hampshire.

“We need to do the right thing,” said Molly Banik of Westminster, chairwoman of the BFUHS board. “We need to keep people safe.”

Banik said she knew the move would be hard on parents with little children, but she said the pandemic is “getting close to home.”

“Some people are just not going to give up their holiday,” she said.

But three members of the Rockingham School Board disagreed, with Director Priscilla Lambert saying the schools should follow the directions from Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine and keep students in the classroom as much as possible.

Scott and Levine, who issued the order banning multi-family gatherings last week ahead of Thanksgiving, have made keeping schools open a priority, Lambert said.

Rockingham Director Jason Terry said the recommendation by the nurses really showed that “we don’t trust what the governor said.”

Terry said his own children are dismayed at the idea of school returning to remote, even for two additional weeks.

“Did anyone ask the children?” he asked.

School Director Deborah Wright, a Rockingham member of the Bellows Falls Union High School Board, said she is thinking of her constituents who are struggling to take care of their children when they are home from school, and would oppose switching to any additional remote learning.

The incidence of COVID-19 cases in the school district is very low, both Wright and Lambert noted, and by switching to remote learning for the week it could be interpreted as giving families and teachers the okay to travel outside Vermont for the holiday.

It turned out the WNESU vote was only advisory, as the supervisory union’s lawyer sent an email Thursday morning that it is up to the individual town or school district’s board to determine whether school would be remote or in person.

“Each District is responsible for making that decision for its school. The SU Board may only make decisions that govern the employees and facilities of the SU. If the town districts wish to close, they will need to vote on the issue,” the supervisory union’s attorney Pietro Lynn wrote Thursday morning, in an email to all chairs in the Windham Northeast district.

{div}Superintendent Christopher Pratt, who had endorsed the nurses’ letter, and a similar letter from his Wellness Committee, scheduled emergency meetings for Friday evening of the WNESU board, as well as the BFUHS board. The Rockingham board is slated to meet Monday evening.{/div}

There are no student, in-person classes next week anyway: there are teacher-parent conferences, and in-service for teachers on Monday and Tuesday, with Wednesday the official start of the holiday break.

Wright, who spoke against going back to remote learning, left the meeting before the vote. She said Thursday she counted votes and realized her vote would create a tie, which would have been broken by Chairman David Clark, who earlier in the meeting supported Pratt and the nurses’ concerns.

After the meeting, Wright faulted Clark for not allowing any parents or the public to speak during the discussion, which stretched out over two hours. She said only nurses, staff, principals and school directors got to weigh in.

Voting in favor of the additional remote learning weeks were Banik, directors Cheryl Charles of Westminster, Lynn Morgan of Athens, and Jessa Westclark of Grafton. Voting against were Lambert, Terry and George Smith of Rockingham.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.


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