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State Unveils Updated Health Guidance For In-Person Learning At Public Schools

Gov. Phil Scott fields questions at a media briefing last week. On Tuesday, Scott said vulnerable children in Vermont could be at risk if public schools don't bring students back for in-person learning this fall.
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Gov. Phil Scott fields questions at a media briefing last week. On Tuesday, Scott said vulnerable children in Vermont could be at risk if public schools don't bring students back for in-person learning this fall.

Gov. Phil Scott used his twice-weekly media briefing Tuesday to prevail on Vermont school districts to bring students back to the classroom for in-person learning this fall.

Scott said he appreciates the anxiety that many teachers, parents and students feel about returning to school buildings in the midst of a pandemic. And he said returning to in-person learning will almost certainly result in new cases of COVID-19 that wouldn’t otherwise occur.

"Because of the nature of this virus, and even though we have the lowest number of cases in the nation, we're likely to see some cases and clusters connected to schools." - Gov. Phil Scott

“Because of the nature of this virus, and even though we have the lowest number of cases in the nation, we’re likely to see some cases and clusters connected to schools,” Scott said Tuesday.

However, he said the risks of keeping students at home, especially for academically at-risk children, exceed the dangers posed by transmission of the coronavirus.

More from Vermont Edition: More Than 100,000 Tested: Vermont Health Commissioner Discusses COVID-19 Milestone And More

“We’re reading a lot about the difficulty of a return to school, and I get it, but let’s not forget about the negative impact on kids if we don’t return,” Scott said. “What about kids from vulnerable families? What happens to their kids? Who’s making sure they’re learning, getting fed, and staying safe?”

Scott’s pitch to school districts came as the Agency of Education unveiled revised public guidance for in-person learning during the pandemic.

The physical distancing requirements for children 10 and younger is now 3 to 6 feet. Previous guidance called for minimum distancing of 6 feet for all public school students, regardless of age.

“An expanding body of scientific evidence continues to support the finding that younger children less than 10 years old are least likely to acquire COVID-19, and least likely to transmit it to others when infected, even in close-contact scenarios,” Secretary of Education Dan French said.

Vermont's teacher's union weighs in

The new guidance also allows students and parents to fill out a daily “wellness check” form that’s designed to prevent people with symptoms of COVID-19 from entering school buildings.

More from Vermont Edition: Back To School: Vermont School Districts Release Plans For Return This Fall

Previous guidance required school personnel to interview students and certify the forms.

"An expanding body of scientific evidence continues to support the finding that younger children less than 10 years old are least likely to acquire COVID-19, and least likely to transmit it to others when infected." -Dan French, secretary of education

“We heard from many districts that it was going be difficult to implement health checks by school personnel at first point of contact,” French said.

Officials with the union that represents Vermont’s teachers said the shift in guidance exemplifies the bureaucratic “chaos” that has defined the Scott administration’s approach to school reopenings.

Don Tinney, president of the Vermont-NEA, said Scott has “ignored” the union’s calls for a “statewide set of safety requirements for all Vermont schools.” And he said the administration’s approach has caused “confusion” and “anxiety” for teachers, students and parents.

“We are increasingly frustrated with the inconsistent and seemingly changing ‘guidance’ from the administration,” Tinney said in a written statement Tuesday.  “Instead of joining us in an orderly, phased-in, statewide approach, (Scott) has chosen to allow districts to make critical decisions on their own.”

Three-pronged approach to risk mitigation

State Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso said Tuesday that the Vermont Department of Health has developed a three-pronged strategy to minimize the risk of COVID-19 in the school environment.

More from VPR: 'Spreading Humility' While Learning Remotely During COVID-19

She that strategy consists of, “Decreasing the risk of individuals infected with COVID-19 entering schools, decreasing transmission among staff and students and quickly identifying individuals with COVID-19 and putting containment procedures in place.”

Kelso said, "Administrators will have plans in place to manage infection prevention, communication and education programs should anyone in the school test positive."

"We can open schools safely. I've been reassured time and time again with each new case that's been reported that our containment strategies are working." - Dr. Patsy Kelso, state epidemiologist

Kelso said Vermont enjoys one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 in the United States. And she said the low prevalence of the coronavirus here, along with robust testing and contact tracing infrastructure, make the state uniquely well-positioned to return to in-person learning.

More from Vermont Edition: Vermont Health Update: Contact Tracing And A Statewide Mandate On Masks

“We can open schools safely. I’ve been reassured time and time again with each new case that’s been reported that our containment strategies are working,” Kelso said. “It’s mission critical to open schools and we have to try. There may be no safer place to do it than in Vermont.”

Fall sports to be allowed, with health measures

State officials have also decided it’s safe to send students back to playing field for the fall sports season, though athletes will have to abide by unprecedented public health measures.

“Facial coverings will be required for all players, coaches, officials, staff and spectators at all times,” said Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals Association. “This includes during active play. The only exception for this is for cross-country running.”

Nichols said the schools can use staggered starts for cross country races to minimize close-contact encounters on the course, but he said there’s no way to ensure proper distancing for other fall sports.

More from Vermont Edition: 'A New Norm For Higher Ed': Middlebury College Plans For Partial Reopening In Fall

While schools will be allowed to begin practice on Sept. 8 - the first day schools are permitted to reopen for in-person learning - he said competition between schools won’t be allowed until at least Sept. 21.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld

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