March 4, 2021…by Neil Allen, Standard Staff
Last week during a press conference, Governor Phil Scott said that Vermont’s students “are not okay,” and announced that all schools in the state have to move to at least four days of in-class teaching. The Windsor Central Unified Union School District is ahead of the curve following the recent transition of two sixth grade classrooms at Woodstock Elementary School (WES) to temporary classrooms at Billings Farm & Museum (BFM).
Ann Jones, the mother of a sixth grade student at WES, was listening to the press conference. “It hasn’t been easy,” she said. “Knowing that Woodstock is going to be in a better place made me feel good.”
The classes, with a total of 37 students, had their first day at BFM on Feb. 25, just a few days after district schools returned to school following winter vacation.
The move comes months after the state made the recommendations that social distancing for grades K-6 be reduced to three feet in November, according to Sherry Sousa, interim superintendent for Windsor Central Supervisory Union.
“Most of our schools were able to return students in those grades to school four days a week. At Woodstock Elementary School, being our school with the largest enrollment, this was a challenge,” Sousa said. “Over winter break when we saw that the requirements were not going to allow more students in our buildings, Principal Mills and I began to explore other options so that WES students could also be on campus four days a week.”
Sixth grade teacher Rob Hanson said, “Our move to Billings Farm directly impacts not only the WES sixth graders but now provides safe in-person learning for the entire school four-days a week. Doing so has been a goal for the school since September, allowing for a school experience that more closely resembles a “normal” year.”
The students in pre-K to second grade at WES had been going four days a week, but grades 3-6 were still adhering to a hybrid schedule, according to Mills.
“Hybrid learning is really tricky,” she said.
Sixth grade teacher Martha Giller explained, “It’s been challenging. For the students, they’ve missed the social and intellectual climate of the classroom and it’s been hard for some of them to structure the home learning days. For the teachers, it has been difficult to have half the class in person while at the same time send assignments and monitor the other half at home.
“Working with smaller groups in school has allowed us to cover more in one day but it’s hard knowing that the other half is home experiencing a long day and possibly without academic support and the social interactions important for their emotional well-being,” she continued.
Hanson added, “For our students and ourselves, the need to socially distance and wear masks creates special challenges for staying not only physically healthy but to grow socially, emotionally, and intellectually. Learning requires all of these things, so both students and staff have had to adapt. As educators, we’ve compensated in many ways, including taking learning outside as-much-as-possible.” “The students are excited to be back together. They’ve only seen half their class since the start of the year,” said Mills. “I think it will be a special … a unique way to end their sixth grade. It will be quite memorable.”
Billings was pleased to be able to offer the space to the school district. “We are happy to support the students, schools and community,” said Michelle Adams Somerville, executive vice president at BFM and parent of a sixth grader at WES. “We were approached by the school to see if we had a space for the students.”
“Our sixth grader classes will benefit from the willingness of Billings Farm to partner with the district to provide this opportunity,” said Sousa. “Without their generosity and hospitality, we would not be able to have all of our K-6 students in school four days a week. We are indebted to them for opening their doors to our students.”
The students are located in the activity barn, which means the historic farm and museum will have to be closed during the week. They are typically closed for the month of March and are expected to reopen for their 39th season on April 9.
“We are so happy to be able to offer the school space while we are closed to the public,” said Adams Somerville. “We are looking for creative ways to open our season after April 9 and continue to support student learning on our site.”
Billings is going to be inviting the parents of the sixth grade students to take a tour of the classroom areas “so they can see where the student learning is happening at Billings,” she continued. “An email will be sent directly to all sixth grade parents with a date and time.”
“As for the sixth grade class, well, nearly all students are absolutely delighted to be gifted with finishing their elementary school lives in such a special and beautiful place. Our final weeks at Billings Farm promises to be a bright silver lining of covid’s dark cloud,” said Hanson.
The first few days have gone well, according to the sixth grade teachers.
“[Billings] have been great. The facility is beautiful and the generosity of the Billings staff has been overwhelming. Listening to a rooster has taken the place of morning announcements over the intercom and the positive attitudes and energy from the students have been inspiring,” said Giller.
“The staff of Billings Farm has bent over backward to make us welcome and valued. Although not intended as classrooms, [the activity barn] is in many ways a space that makes for a rich learning environment. And, of course, students are able to step outside into the beautiful fields of the farm and, across the street, access our national park,” said Hanson.
“A perfect example of the possibilities is this week’s outdoor field experience led by Ed Sharron, a veteran park ranger, who will conduct a winter wildlife tracking workshop for all students in the park. As well, Christine Scales, the educational coordinator of Billings Farm, is offering students learning experiences at the Billings museum,” he continued.
Scales is excited about the opportunities for the sixth graders. “The students also have recess out on the site, sledding down the hill by our orchard, and snowshoeing and playing in the field. In these large spaces, the teachers and students have much more room to spread out, and the ventilation is good. When the weather gets nicer, there will be some great opportunities for outdoor classrooms and lunch time.
“It also feels very historic. I can’t help but think about a photograph I saw a few months ago of a church in Burlington that had been converted into a daycare for children whose parents were ill during the 1918 influenza pandemic,” she continued. “I wonder if in 50 years, we will look at pictures of students having class here at Billings Farm & Museum in the same way.” Some of the parents and students are pleased so far with the change, such as Jones and her son, Charlie, of Woodstock.
“I’m thrilled with how they worked together to rally around the kids, the community coming together,” said Ann Jones. “This coordination teaches our children that when they are faced with challenges, there are solutions to find when people work together.
“I think it is a great move, so much better for the students. Socialization is so crucial at this age,” she continued.
Charlie echoed his mother’s words. “I’m a really social person. Socialization is really important. We were crammed, we barely left our room. Now we can move around and be on our own at recess and talk with our friends.”
The return to school four days a week is welcomed by the Joneses.
“It was difficult to stay organized with the long breaks in between the days in school. There was no continuity,” Ann Jones said.
“I disliked online school, I got so distracted with video games, kids in the neighborhood and the dogs. There were just so many other things to do,” Charlie said. “I really need to have a structure with school. My parents and I tried to get one set but we didn’t get it sorted out. Being out of school for one day will not have a normal thing around it so I can handle that.”
Woodstock’s Anthea Lavallee, the mother of Elvis, one of the WES sixth graders, said, “WES did a phenomenal job of navigating the pandemic as it unfolded. The WES team was thoughtful and communicative, pivoting appropriately to keep kids, families, and teachers safe while supporting productive learning, both at school and home.
“I think Elvis has been successful. There is no substitute for in-person learning at his age, but his teachers did everything within their power to set him up for success and to feel relaxed and supported,” she continued. “So far, so good. Elvis is excited and looking forward to going back to Billings.”
Adams Somerville said the response of her son, Marshall, after the first day at Billings was, “Best. Day. Ever!”