Mandatory face masks for teachers and daily temperature checks for students will become the new normal in Vermont schools this fall as state officials prepare to reopen public schools to the 75,000 students who were sent home in March due to COVID-19.
Gov. Phil Scott said during a press briefing Wednesday that, barring a resurgence of the new coronavirus in Vermont, students will begin reporting to school for the beginning of the 2020/2021 academic year.
Scott said the threat of COVID-19 likely won’t have abated by September. But he said public health interests need to be weighed against the educational consequences of school closures.
“This approach cannot continue without kids falling behind in their school work and the social development that takes place in the physical structures of the schools,” Scott said.
Next week, the Agency of Education and Department of Health will release the public health guidelines that will govern school operations during the coronavirus pandemic.
Secretary of Education Dan French on Wednesday previewed some of the requirements, which include mandatory face coverings for teachers and daily “health checks” for students. French said students will be "encouraged" to wear face masks.
French said despite school districts’ best efforts at remote learning, many students are falling behind educationally as a result of the closures.
“We recognize that as much as COVID-19 has been an unprecedented public health emergency, in many cases it has been an education emergency,” French said. “It is important that we work hard and endeavor to open our schools as a priority.”
French said “precautions and safety measures” in the forthcoming guidelines will focus on decreasing the chances coronavirus enters school buildings, and early detection protocols to determine if it does.
French said the guidelines will also include provisions that ensure staff or students who show symptoms of COVID-19 are sent home, or refused entry to school buildings.
'Reactive' school closures may occur
French said his agency is also preparing for the possibility of “reactive” school closures, “where the closure of a single school or groups of schools in a region might be necessary as [as a result of] an outbreak in the virus.”
“This means that as much as we’re planning for in-person instruction in the fall, we’re also preparing to improve our ability to provide remote learning as a contingency,” French said.
Complying with the new health guidelines won’t be cheap.
The American Association of School Administrators this week estimated that it’ll cost districts nearly $500 per pupil to institute COVID-related safety precautions, which amounts to roughly $40 million in Vermont.
French said the association’s projections are not Vermont-specific, but he said districts will incur significant costs related to retrofitting school buildings, adding staff and purchasing personal protective equipment.
French said his agency is trying to determine what portions of those costs will be eligible for federal coronavirus relief aid.
Update on the outbreak in Winooski
News of school reopenings Wednesday came as health officials provided updates on a COVID-19 outbreak in Chittenden County.
Commissioner of Health Mark Levine said as of Tuesday night, his department had confirmed 74 total cases associated with the outbreak.
Levine said 80% of the cases are in Winooski, but that the outbreak has now spread to people in Burlington and “a few scattered around the county.”
Levine said 46% of the confirmed cases are in children. He also said 80% of patients aren’t showing any symptoms of COVID-19, and that there are no hospitalizations or deaths associated with the outbreak.