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Secretary Dan French On Reopening Vermont Schools

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Vermont Agency of Education, Courtesy
Agency of Education Secretary Dan French talks about the state's guidance for reopening schools this fall.

The Scott administration has issued updated guidance on the reopening of public schools in Vermont. Now, for instance, it's okay for young students to practice three-to-six feet of physical distancing in school rather than the previously recommended six feet. This hour, Agency of Education Secretary Dan French joins us to provide more details on this guidance and answer your back-to-school questions.
Our guest is:

  • Dan French, Vermont Agency of Education secretary

Broadcast live on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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A Q&A with Agency of Education Secretary Dan French

Disclaimer: Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers. They may contain errors, so please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Mitch Wertlieb: Secretary French, the date for returning to school wasn't announced until late last month. Now, the regular start date for school was pushed back until Sept. 8, but the schools were closed initially in March. This is all happening over the last couple of weeks.

Why has it taken so long to come up with a strategy for resuming the educational year when there were literally months to plan for this? And why was that announcement for a start date made so late in the game?

Dan French: It was only in the first week of May that we understood how the school year was going to end back in the spring. So that was sort of job number one. And then, like everyone else in the country, we started to think about reopening in the fall. And a large part of that conversation was about what we do in the summer.

Everyone started to realize that the emergency is not over. Come summer, we had to put our efforts into planning for the fall. And that's where we put all our efforts into. I think in mid-June we were able to publish our initial guidance on reopening schools, which was, I would say, fairly early relative to some other states and also very comprehensive relative to other states.

So, you know, this was an unprecedented situation. I think we've done as best we can in terms of the timeliness of that.

Mitch Wertlieb: Is that extra week or so enough time, though, for teachers and everybody involved in the schools to prepare for this? What do you have been hearing from teachers on that front?

Dan French: I would divide the feedback into two categories. One is the logistical consideration like, how do we do this? Part of the reason for issuing the revised guidance that we did earlier in the week was to address many of the implementation questions. But we're also handling those through frequently asked questions.

I think the other half of the equation is really about anxiety, which is totally understandable. I think it's really important for folks to understand that all our thinking is based on an assessment of our conditions, and not compare them to, say, Texas which has a much higher positivity rate than Vermont.

And our primary focus is to keep everyone safe, and we think we can do that. It's certainly the consensus of our medical community. And we wouldn't hesitate to make different decisions if the data supported that. We feel pretty confident right now that we're in good shape to reopen schools. 

Mitch Wertlieb: I want to ask this question about physical distancing, because we have heard over and over again that the recommendation is six feet, and that is the recommended distance to stay safe and not pass things on transmission wise.

But what I'm hearing now is that the physical distancing for in-person elementary school-aged kids will now be three to six feet of distance instead of the full six feet. Why is this change being made?

Dan French: Yeah, that change emerged largely from our scientific community that's been involved in advising us. They felt very strongly that that was the approach to implement based on what the data and the research was showing at this point.

All of what we're contemplating in Vermont is, again, based on our assessment of the Vermont conditions, which arguably are some of the best in the country. Once again, our positivity rate is 0.5, so all of our guidance is built on that assumption. And that's an important thing to highlight because we have issues of wearing masks and all those basic precautions that are in place.

Physical distancing is a key part of that strategy, but our whole response is really predicated on Vermont having basically not much of the virus in the general community, because whatever is in the community will be in the schools ultimately. So we have to work hard as a state. We have worked as a state to ensure that we have such a low, low rate of virus in our larger community. And that's what's allowing us to contemplate reopening our schools.

More from VPR: State Unveils Updated Guidance For In-Person Learning At Public Schools

Mitch Wertlieb: Secretary French, we got this email from Lisa who listened to yesterday's program. We had a roundtable of teachers on the program with Jane Lindholm, and she writes in:

"Of course, teachers want to go back to school in person, but not until it's truly safe. The perspectives on the show confirm an echo of my own experiences and wider discussions with teachers and colleagues for the past few weeks. Is the Agency of Education viewing these voices and concerns as a fringe group of teacher opinions? And if these are not viewed as fringe opinions, can you share how the agency is actively listening to these significant concerns from teachers and making adjustments to the guidance to ensure that we, as teachers are heard and valued for our expertise?"

Dan French: Firstly, the development of the guidance and certainly in responding to the many teacher questions that have come from statewide town halls with teachers through the Vermont NEA. And that precipitated a large number of questions, and we compiled them into Frequently Asked Questions.

So we're trying to be very responsive. So every single day we're answering questions from teachers, from superintendents, from community members, parents, and we're prepared to do that. And certainly when that comes together, we formulate a Frequently Asked Questions database and that ultimately then gets fed back into development of guidance.

I'll give you another very specific example. I think when our initial guidance first came out on the health requirements for schools, we heard immediately from music teachers, and they were very concerned about aerosol and holding in-place ensembles.

So the music teachers group have taken our guidance down to the level of application. And we're now having conversations with them about to what extent the agency would publish their work as official guidance. And that's a very interesting conversation back and forth. They've presented some really compelling arguments and research and we're sharing that with our medical professionals. And we're going to try to do the best we can to put that out there as regular guidance. 

Mitch Wetlieb: Secretary French, Vermont health officials have said because this is the state with the lowest positivity rate in the nation, that we are probably the best situated to resume in-person learning. I understand that part.

I also understand that a lot of these same health officials, pediatric officials I've spoken with, have said it's really important to get kids back in school. There are all sorts of implications long term that could be negative if they don't go back.

I guess the problem is, what do you do if that low positivity rate gets put at risk by an outbreak happening in the schools? What's the plan in place should there be a large cluster of cases that come out?

The governor said he would not be surprised if he saw cases start to crop up in the schools. What is the plan? Is there a quick lockdown plan? Is it going to be like what happened in March where the schools closed? What can be expected?

Dan French: It’s challenging from a decision-making standpoint to a certain extent. But I think we've been successful as a state to set aside some of that complexity and just focus as much as possible on health science and let that inform our decision making, because this is an emerging body of knowledge, as this is a new virus. We don't have any experience with it in our human condition. So we have to listen closely to science as we're making these decisions.

The plan is certainly based on the assumption that there's a limited amount of virus in our communities. The next step in the guidance talks about if the virus is inside the school environment, how to prevent it from spreading, and that's where strategies such as wearing a mask or social distancing become critically important inside the school.

So step two inside the guidance is about stopping the spread, and then the next level the guidance talks about is what to do when someone is determined to be sick inside the school. How do you process that individual? Isolate them and so forth. So, built into the assumption of our model is firstly low levels of virus in our broader society. But then here are the practical steps we're going to have to follow.

And I think we can point to the data in Vermont. In our experience, we've had very solid experience operating child care since the beginning of the emergency. We've kept our child care infrastructure online and we've had a lot of success in terms of managing positive cases in that context.

But then very specifically, we've had outbreaks. We've had clusters in Winooski and Fair Haven and our health department was able to manage that very well. We have a model that establishes those guardrails very clearly.

So we have a high level of testing. We have a good model and we understand where those sorts of lines are in terms of our response. So we feel pretty comfortable right now that we can manage that. But that's something we're alert to in case the number of cases increases. 

More from VPR: UVM Expert On Kids And Disease Argues For A Careful Return To In-Person Learning

Mitch Wertlieb: Related to this, we do have this comment from Jennifer who wrote to us and said:

"At the governor's press conference earlier this week, state epidemiologist Patsy Kelso said that if there was a COVID-19 case in the classroom, it would not mean that all students and staff in that class would be considered a close contact for purposes of contact tracing and testing. This is extremely irresponsible and dangerous. Parents are going to want to know if there is a COVID-19 case in the classroom. Why would the state not contact all families and test all people in a classroom? Why would you not air on the side of caution?"

Dan French: Yeah, I was standing on stage with Dr. Kelso and she made much more elaborate comments than that. But this is sometimes the hard piece to hear. But there's a science to doing the contact tracing. It's nothing new necessarily. I am by no means an expert in contact tracing, but the strategy employed has been successful in Winooski, has been successful in Fair Haven, and is a very focused approach.

But once again, its strategy where there's a low, low probability the virus to begin with. We have some experience, and it’s still emerging, of this idea that testing asymptomatic individuals, particularly in an environment where there's a high degree of suppression, doesn't necessarily lead to useful information. So that's also a challenging thing to communicate to folks.

But we're prepared. We have the modeling and insight into our trends to change our disposition towards that very quickly. And we're very nimble in terms of reacting to the conditions. But right now, we feel pretty confident that we can contain the virus. We've demonstrated our ability to do that. 

Mitch Wertlieb: In yesterday's show, we heard from a panel of teachers who shared questions and concerns about reopening this fall. Amy Braun is a kindergarten and first grade teacher at Rochester Elementary School, and she says she's concerned about the mental health of her students.

She asks:

"What are you choosing as far as the Department of Education? Are you choosing the emotional health of our families and our students, or are you choosing to put some academic pressure on us to catch up on what we're missing? So as an educator, I hope that I'm given an opportunity to really focus on the mental health of these kids as opposed to trying to catch people up."

Dan French: To a certain extent, I think it's a false choice. I mean, it's not going to be one or the other. I think, to our credit, largely emerging from our medical folks, because I think as educators, we are strongly attuned to the social emotional learning needs of students. But even our medical people were very insistent in the initial draft of our guidance that we include a piece on mental health in that because they're closely related, it's not one or the other.

I think to her question, I would say certainly from the agency's perspective, we are very concerned because schools are conditioned and have routines that the initial reopening of schools should not be focused on traditional assessment of academic progress and putting emphasis on compliance with standards and so forth.

I think if we were if I were to choose among the two, I would agree. The emphasis needs to be on social emotional support. That's really one of the more compelling educational reasons why we should reopen school.

Just the act of reopening schools itself and the routines that schools bring to the lives of our students is probably our most important intervention in their lives right now. Our biggest intervention we can put on the table is just to turn schools back on and get them back into their routines with their peers and so forth.

More from Vermont Edition: What Vermont Teachers Think About Starting School This Fall

Mitch Wertlieb: We had this comment to a question from Susan in Shaftsbury who asks:

"What are the suggestions for working parents or guardians who work and can't leave their children at home alone? Is there a way to assist with childcare costs if providers can be found at all?"

Any recommendations for Susan? 

Dan French: Yeah, this is probably a front burner logistic challenge right now. The childcare implications are significant and we're working hard. I know our Child Development Division under the Agency of Human Services is taking a lead on this.

So I would firstly, on an immediate concern point, point the caller towards their website. This is a priority for us. It's a very challenging problem.

As you know, we had inadequate child care in the state before the emergency began, and certainly that's been exacerbated, particularly with the implementation of the hybrid models across district to district. So it's something we're very attentive to and we're working hard to come up with a better solution. 

Mitch Wertlieb: I'm wondering if you've heard from teachers around the districts if there is enough staff available. Are subs ready to go if their staff isn't? And who will pay for more help if it's needed? Because you've said that schools could schedule things in. But really, what does that mean?

Teachers don't seem to have the time, budgets have been passed and I'm just wondering where that money is going to come from if you are going to have trouble with staffing? What if teachers get sick?

Dan French: Yeah, I would say part of the decision making on the hybrid approach in particular was to give districts another tool to navigate these challenges and our school districts are highly vulnerable to logistical considerations. And I would put staffing as one of the most critical ones to those criteria. 

Mitch Wertlieb: Well, do you have a general idea about whether there is enough staff? 

Dan French: I would say we don't know at the state level yet. The answer to that question right now, I think those are the hard conversations that are going on in districts, particularly as they settle into their plans. So I think the first step is for districts to build those plans. And certainly I think they're factoring in staff availability into those conversations.

But then I know many districts are now turning and having those conversations. The staff are like, "Who feels comfortable doing in-person and who would prefer to teach online?" So I think it's a little early.

But in terms of funding, we don't have any additional state funding on the table to deal with this, but we do have federal dollars coming out. So this refers to the CARES Act, which comes out in a couple pots of money, one called the Coronavirus Relief Fund. And the Legislature is giving school districts about $50 million in that area, and about $40 million of that can be used for reimbursable expenses, including staffing costs.

And then districts have access to the Emergency Secondary Elementary School Relief Fund from the federal government. That's about $27 million that's rolling out now. So they do have some additional federal dollars available. I would say that those dollars are really just going to help with the initial reopening of school. The longer term costs are ones that we're going to need additional federal support to deal with.

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