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Public Schools Will Be Allowed To Start Using Cafeterias, Holding Sports Competitions

A man in a suit and tie at a podium
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Vermont Education Secretary Dan French announced Tuesday that schools can move into a phase with fewer social restrictions beginning this coming weekend.

Public schools in Vermont are about to get wider latitude in how they go about preventing the spread of COVID-19 among staff and students. And that new leeway means interscholastic sport competitions can begin this Saturday.

Here are four takeways from Gov. Phil Scott's latest twice-weekly presser:

1. State officials say schools can move to "Step 3" starting this weekend

Secretary of Education Dan French said low COVID-19 case counts in Vermont schools, as well as strict adherence to distancing and masking requirements so far, mean that districts will soon enjoy greater flexibility in how they administer coronavirus mitigation protocols.

Starting Saturday, all kindergarten-through-12th grade schools in Vermont will move from “Step 2” to “Step 3” guidance. French said the change will allow for the use of common areas such as gyms and cafeterias, and also enable athletic competitions between schools.

More from VPR: Gov. Announces Expanded Capacity For Restaurants, Lodging, Defends Creemees

“In spite of the few cases we have seen in schools, the conditions remain very positive,” French said Tuesday. “The cases we have seen in schools were the result of the virus essentially being brought to school. To date, we have not seen transmission of the virus in schools.”

French said his agency is aware of three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Vermont schools since the academic year began on Sept. 8.

French said the new guidelines will allow schools to reopen communal spaces that had previously been off-limits for student gatherings. He said communal areas will still be subject to strict coronavirus protocols, including “smaller student group sizes, staggering the use of the space and ensuring cleaning and disinfection between uses.”

French said the transition to “Step 3” will also relax a previous requirement that sought to segregate groups of students into “pods,” so as to limit exposure in the event of a positive case.

“This will provide additional flexibility for grouping students by academic subject, which is a very important consideration, particularly for high schools,” French said.

As for sports, French said his agency timed the transition to Step 3 so that competition could begin this weekend.

“We wanted to give our student athletes an extra weekend for what has already been a shortened season,” French said. “This is particularly important for our students participating in activities that have short seasons to begin with, such as bass fishing and golf.”

2. "Grim Milestone" On U.S. Deaths from COVID-19

According to data compiled by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the United States is on track to reach 200,000 COVID-19 deaths by the end of the day Tuesday.

Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak said the “grim milestone” should serve as reminder of how much worse things could have been in Vermont.

Vermont has recorded 58 deaths due to COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. And according to Pieciak, Vermont’s per-capita death rate is fourth-lowest in the nation.

More from VPR: Dr. Anthony Fauci Lauds Vermont As A Model For Its Response To COVID-19

Many of Vermont’s coronavirus fatalities occurred in nursing homes during the early days of the pandemic. Pieciak said Vermont’s per-capita death rate from COVID-19 is the lowest in the nation since May 15.

“So we’re very fortunate that our state has responded in the way that it has, because it doesn’t just keep our case counts low, it keeps people alive and it keeps Vermonters safe, which is a very good thing,” Pieciak said Tuesday.

Vermont has not reported a COVID-related death in 56 days.

3. Health Commissioner Criticizes CDC

On Monday, the federal Centers for Disease Control eliminated language from its COVID-19 guidance that warned of airborne transmission of the coronavirus.

And on Tuesday, Commissioner of Health Mark Levine called the CDC’s decision “yet another public relations fiasco, with overtones of politicization.”

The CDC said guidance about airborne transmission had been posted in error. Levine, however, said numerous studies have indicated that the coronavirus can be transmitted via “aerosols” that can travel much farther than large respiratory droplets from coughs or sneezes. And he said he and other health officials across the country “have been calling for the risk of airborne transmission to be recognized by health authorities.”

More from Vermont Edition: Some In It For The Long Haul After Contracting COVID-19

“In many ways, it is why our advice about distancing, masking and time spent in indoor settings are such fundamental parts of our health guidance, recommendations that will only become more relevant to Vermonters as we begin to hunker down for the winter,” Levine said.

Levine said he still has full faith in the scientists leading the CDC. But he said the decision to remove language about airborne transmission from official CDC guidance, along with previous actions at the agency, have rightly fueled speculation about the undue role of politics in decision-making there.

4. Governor Non-Committal On Cannabis Bill

The Vermont Senate on Tuesday gave final approval to legislation that would create a taxed and regulated market for retail cannabis in Vermont.

And while Scott wouldn’t say Tuesday whether he plans to sign the bill, or allow it to become law without his signature, he did thank lawmakers for their work on the legislation.

Scott said lawmakers appear to have addressed some of his primary concerns with a retail cannabis market, related to highway safety and giving municipalities control over whether they want to allow retail cannabis sales in their communities.

“It appears that they’ve come a long ways and they’ve really tried to meet my concerns,” Scott said. “And I appreciate that from the Legislature.”

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

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