SVSU to begin year with remote learning

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BENNINGTON — For students of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, going back to school on Sept. 8 will mean getting back behind their computers. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, students will resume learning remotely, although plans are already in place to bring them back to school this year, SVSU officials said Friday.

SVSU shifted to online learning in the spring, but this school year's setup will be different because teachers will be working out of school buildings.

"Staff members who do not have an exemption will be working in the building and, we feel, will be able to support remote learning better than we did in the spring because of all the resources that will be available in the building," SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen said Friday in an interview alongside Assistant Superintendent Laura Boudreau.

Remote learning, they say, will be done in a couple of ways: virtual group meetings between students and teachers, as well as individual study sessions using the same material.

BACK TO SCHOOL BUILDINGS

Starting in late September, students from prekindergarten to elementary school will be allowed back to school buildings in phases. Under the first phase, buildings will be open to 10-20 percent of their capacity. During the second phase, this will be increased to half of the buildings' capacity, until everyone can return under phase three.

The implementation dates have not yet been determined, but SVSU is working with a September to October time line. 

The supervisory union encompasses just under 3,000 students in about 10 Pre-K-12 schools.

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Students who will be part of phase one include those who need services that can't be delivered remotely, such as special education students, and ones who have difficulty using electronic devices for remote learning.

Middle school and high school students, on the other hand, will be learning remotely until the end of October. 

Culkeen said that the current iteration of SVSU's remote learning "will allow more connection to students and the ability to track students that may fall through the cracks."

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He said he can't tell at this point if the supervisory union will encounter a shortage of teachers because of the pandemic. It's a problem that other Vermont superintendents have brought up with the House Committee on Education. 

SVSU officials emphasized that their plans could change depending on the latest coronavirus guidance from the Vermont Agency of Education and the state Department of Health. The supervisory union issues weekly coronavirus-related updates on its website.

VIRTUAL LEARNING LONG TERM

Meanwhile, families have the choice of sticking with remote learning while it's being offered by SVSU, officials said. They can't say how long this will continue, but foresee it being an option while the virus remains a public health crisis.

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"We will provide virtual learning for students or families that feel that they do not want to attend school at all," Culkeen said, "so it's not going to be a requirement to physically come in the building."

When asked if there are families who won't be bringing their children back to school, Culkeen said he has personally encountered five who have decided to shift to home schooling.

"We want to keep our students engaged with us, and that's what were saying: You don't need to do the home school route," he said. "We will have a virtual option for those who don't want to physically come to school when we do open." 

The education plan in place was developed using information gathered through SVSU's Survey on Fall Reopening, which received 1,437 responses from families and staff.

Culkeen thanked community members who have been patiently waiting for their school reopening plans. He also realized not everyone will be satisfied with the plans. 

"There are going to be some people relieved that we're operating remotely, and I know there are going to be some people frustrated with that," he said. "No plan will please everyone, but none of us asked for this." 

Contact Tiffany Tan at ttan@benningtonbanner.com or @tiffgtan on Facebook and Twitter.


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