by Doug McClure
HARDWICK – A Tuesday virtual meeting between Hazen Union administration and the community about re-opening schools tackled many subtopics, but none got more attention than the safety measures being put in place by the school and the potential health ramifications re-opening could pose.
Hazen Union Principal David Perrigo, newly-appointed Associate Principal Jason Di Giulio, new Director of Guidance Kasey Potter, and Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union (OSSU) Nurse Leader Betty Stewart, R.N., spoke to attendees to fill them in on the school’s evolving plans.
On Monday, Tod Delaricheliere, who was previously Hazen Union’s facility manager and now works OSSU-wide, gave an update on facilities changes at Hazen Union. He said the OSSU is making major upgrades with funding through the CARES Act and Efficiency Vermont. The main entrance for students not coming in by bus will be the gymnasium entrance. Students will get their temperatures taken there. Stewart told parents at the meeting that if a concerning result comes up, the student would be immediately isolated. Delaricheliere said Hazen Union currently has two negative pressure rooms in the center of the school, the nurses’ room and a designated containment room.
Students arriving by bus would have their temperature taken before even getting to school and will use the normal main entrance. Lingering in the halls will not be allowed. Students will go straight to classrooms, and all desks are six feet apart. The school is upgrading its HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system with filtration almost to HEPA (high efficiency particulate air [filtration]) level, per CDC guidelines. Hazen Union is also adding units that provide even more filtration, cycle rooms’ air twice an hour, and have UV light, which can kill COVID-19.
Delaricheliere said “The frequency of cleaning will vary during the day. Touch points will be sanitized often, one of the Hazen Union staff will be focused on the bathrooms. After school, rooms will be cleaned and disinfected with electrostatic sprayers.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, many of those present spoke of their anxiety and of fear, much of it due to the number of questions about COVID-19 for which no answers exist. One parent said “In the long run, [the students] are not going to be asking what school looked like this year. They’re just going to remember how we handled it, and how we handled the fact these kids are really struggling with a lot of stuff. What’s most important is that these kids feel safe, and secure and healthy … and that we remember we’re the adults in the room and that they’re scared.”
Some participants spoke of the psychological impacts of going back to school in a pandemic. “I don’t want everyone to come back to school scared,” said one participant, “And I don’t want my dinner conversations to be about COVID every single night.” Others expressed concern about the exposure for teachers, some of whom are in the age group most likely to suffer serious consequences from the virus and some of whom have pre-existing conditions. State data shows people with pre-existing conditions make up 57% of Vermont’s COVID-19 cases. Some at the meeting worried about students “bringing things back home with them.”
Stewart told parents at the meeting that “[COVID-19] training will be provided to staff. Individuals will feel comfortable before they’re signed off with it. There’s still a lot of unknowns. Will parts of it come back through to New England? Absolutely, we’ll probably see pockets. We know there’s going to be a second round of this.”
Stewart acknowledged the different nature of providing healthcare when the clients are children.
Another issue that is being discussed is what to do with students who test positive but can’t be picked up by their parents because the parents are at work. “Then, where do we go with that student to keep them safe? There’s still a lot of unknown variables,” Stewart said. She said it was critical to educate everyone involved in the school. A large unknown is the fallout from a positive test result. As of now, the school cannot conduct a COVID test, and Stewart said testing with community resources was a question she had not received an answer from the state about. Students showing symptoms at school would be sent home. Parents would be expected to be responsible for keeping symptomatic students at home and going through their own doctors to get children tested. COVID-19, however, can be asymptomatic and still transmissible, and scientific study thus far has said children are more likely to be asymptomatic.
Stewart later said that in her opinion, “let’s not be the guinea pig that’s going to lose a life of a student or anybody in this community.” She said the protocols now in place were not the source of her concern. “Is it an unsafe environment? Not because of the plans and processes and procedures we’re doing. It’s unsafe because it’s COVID and we don’t know. Yes, it’s a low risk to students, but it’s only low. It doesn’t mean it’s 100% [certain] that they’re going to be safe.”
After the meeting, Perrigo said that “I expect that we will have a broad outline for folks sometime this week. However, it will not answer all of everyone’s questions. The anxiety of this situation is now being laid at the feet of school administrators as if we somehow can have all the answers. I get it. People are panicking, people are terrified, and they want someone to make it better. I have serious concern about the safety of returning to ‘in-person’ learning at Hazen on September 8.”