Despite COVID-19 Challenges, Vermonters Are Feeling Optimistic About Their Communities
Although many communities and individuals continue to struggle with challenges caused or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest VPR-Vermont PBS poll finds that Vermonters are largely hopeful about what’s to come.
A VPR-Vermont PBS poll conducted last year found that a majority of Vermonters — about two-thirds of respondents — felt “somewhat” or “very” optimistic about the future of their community.
A year later, the same holds true: A poll conducted earlier this month found 65% of respondents to be “somewhat optimistic” or “very optimistic” about the future of their communities.
The Executive Director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, Paul Costello, spoke to VPR after last year’s poll. When he heard that the same question got near-identical results a year later, he was stunned.
“Wow,” he said incredulously. “I think that’s fascinating.”
Costello was appointed to lead the Local Solutions and Community Action committee, part of Gov. Phil Scott's COVID recovery task force. And Costello says right now, there’s a lot that could put a damper on that optimism: challenges with child care, school, remote work, dramatic economic losses, food insecurity, struggling local businesses and so on, plus the stress of trying to plan towards complete uncertainty.
“We’re in a tough, tough time,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic has compounded existing challenges while creating new ones, both nationally and within Vermont. Unemployment has spiked, many Vermont colleges and hospitals that were struggling before the pandemic are in even more trouble now, and experts say many restaurants and small businesses may never reopen.
Nevertheless, Costello is heartened to hear that as many Vermonters are as optimistic about the future of their communities as last year.
“I don’t know if that’s distinct to Vermont,” he said. "I’m glad to see it here, it makes me proud of Vermont.”
This most recent poll asked another question that was also in a poll last year: “If you were to advise an 18-year-old considering where to build a successful life and career, would you recommend that he or she stay in Vermont or leave Vermont?”
Michelle Aftuck doesn’t have to imagine advising 18-year-olds on this decision; it’s her job. She’s the guidance counselor at Northfield Middle and High school.
“We either have kids at the tech centers working on some kind of specific field and hopefully going on for a certificate after school, and then we have other seniors who are potentially in early college programs, so they’re taking classes at a local university while completing their senior year, and then we have other students on campus,” she said.
The VPR-Vermont PBS poll found that 47% of respondents would advise an 18-year-old to stay in Vermont, while 36% said they wouldn’t. The poll has a 4% margin of error.
A year ago, the exact same question got almost opposite results — more people said they would advise a young person to leave Vermont. One year and one pandemic later, the answer has flipped in Vermont’s favor.
Aftuck, the guidance counselor, said whether her students stay or leave comes down to personal decisions about money, proximity to family, and whether or not what they want to do is available in Vermont. She said about 30% of last year’s Northfield graduates left the state, and nearly all did so for school.
“As far as leaving Vermont without college, I wouldn’t say anybody [did]," she said.
Jaylyn Davidson is an 18-year-old herself, and a senior at Northfield. She’s planning on college in-state, or maybe in Rhode Island. Mostly, she wants to stay.
“I mean, it would be fun to be out of state for a while, but I think I’d always want to come back to Vermont, because it’s my home,” she said.
In Davidson's view, the state she’s in does not limit or guarantee anything.
“Being in Vermont, it doesn’t really define if you’re going to be successful or not. I feel like anywhere it might be hard to get a job,” she said.
According to Paul Costello from the Vermont Council on Rural Development, the state is looking at a period of intense change.
“I think that out of this moment of tremendous pressure, we’re going to galvanize a course of action that has transformational potential for the future of Vermont," he said. "There’s so many fundamental things that we’re looking at [right now].”
Costello is hopeful about resilience, but he says there’s no “normal” to go back to.
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From Sept. 3 to Sept. 15, the VPR - Vermont PBS 2020 Poll asked hundreds of Vermonters how they felt about political candidates, a COVID-19 vaccine, retail marijuana and other issues. Explore the full results here.