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Friday, May 29, 2020

Teacher COVID Cases Worry Educators as Childcare Center Prepares to Reopen

Posted By on Fri, May 29, 2020 at 6:26 PM

Educators rallying last week in Montpelier - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Educators rallying last week in Montpelier
As childcare programs prepare to reopen as soon as June 1, anxiety is running high for some childcare providers. Those who work at Early Education Services — which, prior to COVID-19, served 184 young children and employed 70 staff members in Brattleboro and Westminster — are especially on edge.

In early May, two teachers providing care for children of essential workers tested positive for the coronavirus. The center closed immediately, executive director Deb Gass said, and none of the children in the teachers’ care tested positive for the virus.

There have been no other cases of COVID-19 in Vermont linked to childcare programs that provided care for children of essential workers in March, April and May, according to Dr. Breena Holmes, maternal and child heath director for the Vermont Department of Health. Only one child in the state under the age of 9 has tested positive for COVID-19, and there have been no documented cases of the multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children that has been linked to the novel coronavirus, she added.

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Friday, May 22, 2020

UVM, Burlington Plan 'Supportive Quarantine' Program for Returning Students

Posted By on Fri, May 22, 2020 at 5:43 PM

The University of Vermont and the state Department of Health are working with the Vermont National Guard to set up an on-campus testing site for students as they begin to return to Burlington on June 1.

Many off-campus leases begin that day, and the city and UVM are expecting students, a majority from out of state, to start streaming back into town. Officials and city residents have expressed concerns that those students could bring the coronavirus back with them.

Out-of-state students, like anyone returning to Vermont, must quarantine for 14 days — meaning stay on their property — before venturing out. Mayor Miro Weinberger said during a briefing Friday that, anticipating difficulties, the city will implement a "supportive quarantine" service for housebound students.

The program will also be available to other Burlington residents who return from out of state, such as second-home owners or snowbirds.

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Friday, May 15, 2020

Burlington Provides Care at School — or at Home — for Essential Workers' Kids

Posted By on Fri, May 15, 2020 at 2:25 PM

Francine Kasongo and her three children, from left: Alcina, Ariel and Andrea - COURTESY OF FRANCINE KASONGO
  • Courtesy of Francine Kasongo
  • Francine Kasongo and her three children, from left: Alcina, Ariel and Andrea
When COVID-19 closed schools, Burlington parent Francine Kasongo, a nursing aide at the University of Vermont Medical Center, hired a woman she knows through her church to care for her three children in her home, five days a week.

Lauren Dewey brings her children — ages 3, 6 and 7 — to a school-based program in Burlington three days a week, where they have a designated caregiver and classroom, and don’t mingle with other kids. Dewey’s husband is an emergency medicine physician at Northwestern Medical Center, and he works in the hospital’s newly created COVID response unit.

These childcare arrangements are possible because of a unique program the Burlington School District designed to provide free, state-funded childcare for families with essential workers.

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Thursday, May 14, 2020

Scott Administration Proposes School Budget Revotes Due to COVID-19

Posted By on Thu, May 14, 2020 at 9:04 PM

Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin and Gov. Phil Scott - FILE: JOHN WALTERS
  • File: John Walters
  • Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin and Gov. Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott's administration on Thursday proposed requiring Vermont  school districts to revote on budgets they already approved in response to a projected shortfall in the state's education fund.

Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin outlined the proposal during a virtual meeting with the House Ways and Means Committee. He said school budgets approved prior to the coronavirus pandemic will need to be drastically scaled back due to a looming deficit in the education fund.

"The tax consequences of the approved budgets are radically different from what they were when voters went to town meeting," Greshin said. "And I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb to suggest that the budget votes would have been different — or the budgets themselves would have been different — if voters knew then what we know now."
The proposal is likely to spark a heated debate between Scott and the legislature, which has defeated other gubernatorial attempts to tinker with local school budgets. Scott's proposal to take money from K-12 schools to increase spending on early childhood programs and higher education, for example, landed with a thud.

Of course, the financial challenges of a post-pandemic world are a far different beast. Fiscal analysts project a nearly $170 million gap in next year's education fund — one that Greshin said could force the state to raise property taxes up to 14 percent, based on budgets that local voters passed in March.

The finance commissioner said he could establish education payments without voter input to address the shortfall. “Or, I would suggest the more democratic approach — and one more aligned with Vermont’s system of local control over education spending — is we could ask districts to revote their budgets later in the summer, as the state is gonna do with the general fund," he said.

In the meantime, districts could adopt a "skinny" budget that would base spending on the previous year's budget. That would help districts better understand their fiscal health and give the state more time to assess the allowable uses of the Coronavirus Relief Fund, Greshin said. Voters could then head to the polls "with their eyes wide open." 

“I’m confident that Vermonters will understand the challenges we face, and I think they’ll appreciate the initiative to let them participate in the solution," Greshin said.

For lawmakers, however, the proposal seemed to potentially raise more problems than it would solve. They peppered administration officials with logistical questions and challenged the suggestion that revoting budgets would actually lead to a more democratic process.

"Are we really going to hear the voice of voters in this time that we're working in now, with social distancing and trying to hold meetings remotely and getting questions answered?" asked Rep. Kitty Toll (D-Danville), chair of the House Appropriations Committee. "How would all this information get out to voters, and how would we ensure that their voices are actually heard if we can't hold a town meeting in a school gymnasium with 300 or 400 people?"

Some worried that the proposal would launch schools into further instability, pointing to the 19 districts that have yet to vote on budgets this year.

"The amount of chaos in those districts is palpable," said Rep. Kate Webb (D-Shelburne), who chairs the House Education Committee.
Others were skeptical that school districts would even be able to find ways to cut spending. Noting that personnel costs represent about 80 percent of all education expenses, some wondered why teachers' unions that have already inked contracts would agree to reopen negotiations only to accept lower pay.

Education Secretary Dan French responded that they may do so for the good of their district, particularly if faced with political pressure from local voters.

"If the choice becomes closing a school to navigate a budget, versus salary increases ... giving the voters that information to make those difficult choices, that's the nature of our system," he said.

And while French acknowledged that the administration's plan does pose many challenges, he said Vermont's education system desperately needs to evolve in light of the financial realities of the next few years to remain viable.

“I don't understand how we can maintain the trajectory we are [on]," he said, "where some teachers and employees of school districts will be receiving raises at precisely the time where we’re going to have some of the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression; where education spending decisions were based on assumptions that were made six months ago."

There are typically only two main ways to address budget gaps — cut spending or increase taxes. But some lawmakers believe there's a third option.

Rep. Janet Ancel (D-Calais), who chairs Ways and Means, said her group has already backed a plan to keep next year's property taxes at the same rate they would have been had the pandemic not hit. She conceded that the committee has not yet figured out how to fill the remaining gap. "But it isn’t going to be increased property taxes," she said.

One potential savior may come in the form of Vermont's $1.2 billion federal coronavirus relief funds, a pot of money that lawmakers and administration officials have already sparred over in recent weeks.

Current federal guidance prohibits using these funds to offset revenue gaps. But many states have asked Congress to provide them more flexibility, and legislators remain hopeful that they may be able to find creative ways to distribute the money.

Still, administration officials on Thursday stressed that no one knows when — or whether — the feds will allow states to spend that money more liberally, which is why Greshin said relying on it to cover the education fund losses is the “definition of aspirational budgeting."
“I’m not suggesting that anything I’ve said is easy or ideal," he said. "These are extraordinary times, and they call for extraordinary measures."

But the unprecedented challenges that lie ahead are exactly why the state cannot afford to cripple its education system, Ancel said. Proposing to take money from schools as they are asked to navigate this new and uncertain world "is just unacceptable," she said. 

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Providers Wary of New State Guidance for Childcare Programs

Posted By on Thu, May 14, 2020 at 4:10 PM

Kate Driver playing with kids in 2018 at Georgia's Next Generation - FILE: GLENN RUSSELL
  • File: Glenn Russell
  • Kate Driver playing with kids in 2018 at Georgia's Next Generation
Vermont on Wednesday released guidelines that childcare, summer and afterschool programs must adhere to as they reopen in the coming weeks.

The 13-page document, compiled by the Department of Health, Agency of Education, and Department for Children and Families, provides detailed instructions for childcare providers related to staffing, physical distancing and hygiene in an attempt to prevent a coronavirus outbreak.

But the guidance is worrying to some providers, including Kate Driver, a center director at Next Generation, a childcare program with campuses in Georgia and St. Albans that serves around 80 infants through preschoolers. After reading the document on Wednesday, she said, there were “a lot of things that raised flags.”

Those in early childhood education have worked hard to be seen as educators, Driver said, but under these guidelines, “we’re now just going to be babysitting … The educational component of what we do is gone.”

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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Coronavirus Claims a UVM Program for International Students

Posted By on Tue, May 5, 2020 at 9:48 PM

The University of Vermont campus - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • The University of Vermont campus
A University of Vermont program that serves English language-challenged international students has become a casualty of the coronavirus.

The Global Gateway Program, established in 2013 to help increase the university's international student population, will "officially sunset" this fall amid a "complex and uncertain landscape " brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, UVM provost and senior vice president Patricia A. Prelock wrote in an email to deans and department chairs on Tuesday.

Universities around the country fear that the pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions may prevent some international students from attending college in the U.S. this year. That is particularly concerning for universities such as UVM, which has heavily relied on those tuition dollars. Foreign students, who are ineligible for federal loans, often pay full freight, making them attractive prospects for colleges that compete for a shrinking number of high school graduates in the Northeast.

But the school says there was not much of a choice. "Due to the fact that visas are not being processed as a result of the pandemic, we would not have been in a position to welcome students into the program this fall," wrote UVM spokesperson Enrique Corredera in an email to Seven Days.
Global Gateway Program students were informed of the decision late Friday night, an email obtained by Seven Days shows. The brief note stresses that the program's cancelation will not impact those currently enrolled and said UVM remains "deeply committed" to international students and their success.

Fifty students are already enrolled in the program this academic year, with two final groups expected to complete it remotely this spring and summer before matriculating into the general population.

UVM debuted the Global Gateway Program as part of an initiative of former president Tom Sullivan to increase international enrollment. The program focuses on students whose English skills fall below what's required to be directly admitted to the university and generally lasts two or three semesters. Those who complete the undergrad program enter the university as sophomores; there's also a master's track.

UVM has billed the program as an opportunity for international students to adjust to life in the U.S. while at the same time increasing campus diversity.

UVM has employed a London-based company called Study Group to enhance its global reach in recent years. The company has helped the university increase its percentage of international undergrads from 1 percent in 2013 to roughly 6 percent this academic year.

But Prelock, the provost, said that the university has faced increasing competition for international students since the Global Gateway Program began seven years ago.
"At that time, we were one of just a few national universities that had pathway programs; today many universities do," Prelock wrote in her email. She also cited a "national context" that has complicated recruitment efforts and said the pandemic has only worsened matters.

A notable drop in foreign students on campus would deal yet another blow to UVM's budget as it copes with millions of dollars in losses caused by the pandemic.

The university's trustees adopted a three-month budget last month that will buy officials time to understand the full impacts of the pandemic. And the university detailed a series of austerity measures last week that included trimming hours for some faculty.

Study Group is now working to find alternative placements for two students who had confirmed their intent to enroll at UVM's program this fall, according to Corredera. He added the university remains hopeful that visa issues will be resolved in time for international students to still attend UVM through direct admission this fall.

Prelock wrote that UVM will continue to recruit international students and build a "multi-cultural awareness" in the program's wake.

"We also remain committed to internationalization as an important and enriching aspect of life on our campus," the provost wrote.

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Monday, May 4, 2020

Vermont State Colleges Plan In-Person Instruction This Fall

Posted By on Mon, May 4, 2020 at 8:49 PM

Northern University Vermont-Lyndon Campus - FILE: TERRI HALLENBECK
  • File: Terri Hallenbeck
  • Northern University Vermont-Lyndon Campus
The Vermont State Colleges System said Monday that all of its campuses will welcome students back for in-person instruction this fall, despite a looming financial crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The move comes as the ailing college system finds itself within reach of a legislative bailout, with Vermont’s top lawmakers reaffirming their commitment over the weekend to helping the schools survive the next academic year so that the state can adopt a “transitional plan.”

"This summer and fall, we will focus attention on creating a 21st century higher education system that meets the needs of Vermonters, our communities and our workforce," Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) wrote in a joint statement released Saturday.

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Thursday, April 30, 2020

Facing Looming Deficit, UVM Considers Cuts in Pay, Hours

Posted By on Thu, Apr 30, 2020 at 3:28 PM

The University of Vermont campus - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • The University of Vermont campus
The University of Vermont has proposed a series of cost-cutting initiatives that include trimming hours for some faculty in an attempt to absorb coronavirus-related losses and brace for further financial uncertainty.

UVM president Suresh Garimella informed lawmakers earlier this month that the university had lost millions of dollars this spring after sending students home early due to the pandemic.

"The biggest challenge in my mind is that things are uncertain," he told the Senate Education Committee earlier this month. "We cannot quite put a number on it — if we could, it would be easier to plan for. So there's a whole bunch of scenario and contingency planning going on."

Garimella later requested a $25 million appropriation from Vermont's $1.25 billion federal stimulus funds, a cash injection he hoped would cover the losses and help the university prepare for an anticipated uptick in financial aid requests from families impacted by the virus.

But that money is not guaranteed, especially now that lawmakers are considering a similarly priced bailout for the ailing state college system. And UVM may eventually need to cough up even more money in response to a class-action lawsuit from students who say they were not properly compensated for being forced to finish the semester at home.
Meantime, UVM and colleges across the country are bracing for further unanticipated costs — for good reason. Though Garimella announced on Wednesday that the university would resume in-person classes this fall, recent national surveys suggest that four-year institutions like UVM could lose up to 20 percent of their fall enrollment due to uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

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Castleton University President Announces She Will Resign

Posted By on Thu, Apr 30, 2020 at 12:41 AM

Karen Scolforo, president of Castleton University - COURTESY OF CASTLETON UNIVERSITY
  • Courtesy Of Castleton University
  • Karen Scolforo, president of Castleton University
The fallout from a controversial proposal to shutter three Vermont State Colleges System campuses continued Wednesday night as Castleton University's president announced that she will soon resign.

Karen Scolforo said she plans to step down May 31 after three years with the university. She recently told Seven Days that she was effectively "out of a job" as chancellor Jeb Spaulding prepared to replace her as part of his campus closure proposal.

"The circumstances that have occurred over the past couple of weeks have put me in a position where I feel that I can't lead at the same level," Scolforo said during Wednesday night's board of trustees meeting. "I don't want folks to be distracted by trying to understand some of the decisions that have been made."

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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

UVM Says Students Will Return to Campus in the Fall

Posted By on Wed, Apr 29, 2020 at 2:14 PM

The University of Vermont campus - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • The University of Vermont campus
Updated at 5:11 p.m.

The University of Vermont announced Wednesday that it intends to bring students back to campus for in-person learning this fall.

“We’re being both clear-eyed and pragmatic and are informed by experts in public health, government and education, in addition to our own medical personnel,” school president Suresh Garimella said in a video that accompanied a letter to the community about the decision.

The statement contained scant details about specific precautions the university will take both on campus and in bringing back students from around the world, including many from areas hit hard by the pandemic.

Data provided by UVM show that about 7,800 undergraduate students — or 73 percent — of 10,700 enrolled last fall were from out of state. Massachusetts led the way with 1,905 students, followed by New York with about 1,200. Another 776 came from Connecticut, while about 654 were international students or listed with an "unknown" home state.

Enrollment data for the coming school year won't be available until closer to the beginning of the semester, a spokesperson said Wednesday.

“Return to an in-person campus will require more testing, tracing, and improved protocols developed through collaboration across sectors and around the globe,” Garimella wrote in the statement. “And it will require additional precautions on campus, in our classrooms, and in our residence halls and dining facilities.”

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