Teachers, Vermont NEA React To State's New COVID Guidance For K-12 Schools
Vermont's Agency of Education has released its COVID-19 pandemic guidance for K-12 schools for the coming school year. It calls for all students and staff to initially mask up, whether they're vaccinated against the virus or not.
The recommendations say that masking can be relaxed if enough students in any given school get vaccinated. But what about the teachers and administrators who will be in the schools with the students?
VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Vermont NEA president Don Tinney. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: Last year, the Agency of Education had, like, 40 pages of guidance and regulations for schools to follow. Going into the fall term, Education Secretary Dan French says there are just two pages of guidance this time around, and overall, [the state guidance is] less restrictive and easier to follow.
And Vermont's recommendation is clashing, in part, with some of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics guidance, which is calling for universal masking of all people in all schools, regardless of vaccination status. Whereas [the Agency of Education] here in Vermont is saying: once that 80% threshold of vaccinated students is reached, there would not be a mask mandate. Are members of the Vermont NEA OK with that?
Don Tinney: I think that reading the CDC recommendations, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations led us to fully expect the mask mandate for for everyone.
"We have been listening to Dr. Levine and his team for the last year and a half, and they've led us well, so we are certainly hopeful that this is the approach that will be most effective."
[Health Commissioner] Dr. Mark Levine and his team of medical experts have made a different determination, given the conditions in Vermont, given our high rate of vaccinations and community spread. So, we have been listening to Dr. Levine and his team for the last year and a half, and they've led us well, so we are certainly hopeful that this is the approach that will be most effective.
A lot of teachers are wondering how these new mask recommendations are going to be implemented. There are several schools that have grades K-12 of K-8 in one building. Jennifer Skerrett teaches seventh and eighth grade in Franklin County, and says all this is going to be a challenge for her students:
"Another complication is, because I teach in a middle school, there are a lot of students in the middle school who are under the age of 12, and not eligible [to be vaccinated]. So, I just think that's a complicating factor, if some students in the same school are not wearing masks, and others have to wear masks, that that seems like it's going to be a little bit more difficult and challenging."
— Jennifer Skerrett, teacher
So Don, are some members voicing any concerns that reflect what Jennifer is saying there?
I think what's most important is that we protect those who are 12 and under. My understanding is that, in a school building where there are students who are 12 and under, we need to all be masked to protect them.
I think it's a bit different in a regular high school, where everyone is over 12 and eligible [to be vaccinated]. So I do think there will be some local considerations this year because of the differences in districts.
I want to get to another concern ... from another teacher we heard from about how quickly schools and the state could pivot if the situation around the coronavirus warrants it. Eric Hutchins is a teacher at Lamoille Union High School and he says, overall, he would feel better with more strict masking rules:
"You know, based on what happened over the last year, I'm optimistic that our experts in the state will heed the advice of medical science. And it seems like an uptick in cases in our state is already happening, and I don't imagine that's going to downturn very soon, and I hope they'll respond quickly to that."
— Eric Hutchins, teacher
Don, do you and your members think the Agency of Education is being responsive to developing needs, both for what we're seeing now with the delta variant, and potential future developments as well?
I think Eric raises a good point. As we begin school for the first few weeks, as long as everyone's in masks and the situation changes and we see an uptick, it would be very easy to pivot to say, "Everyone will remain in their masks until we get through a particular spike."
"We need to continue to examine our [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning] systems and make sure that our classrooms are properly ventilated. That's a critical piece that we can't let up on."
The good news is that we have a year and a half of experience with this. We have learned, for instance, that the deep cleaning that we once thought was critical is not as critical as we once thought.
I do think we need to continue to examine our [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] systems and make sure that our classrooms are properly ventilated. That's a critical piece that we can't let up on.
Another thing you're very well aware of that happened over the last year and a half, of course, was the necessity of hybrid learning and remote learning for a lot of students. Some parents may not be comfortable with any form of in-person learning this time around. This potentially means more hybrid learning for some students who will remain remote. How are your members thinking about remote learning this coming term? Does this new guidance discourage remote learning, in your view?
I know that some school districts have created opportunities to continue virtual learning for some students. So, that will most likely continue.
What our members cannot do is to be doing two or three different jobs at the same time. That is what created a lot of opportunities for complete exhaustion, because our educators were responsible for students who were in the classroom in front of them, for students who were at home in the virtual world and then some students who were coming to class every other day. And that was complicated and exhausting for our members.
Overall, I know this is only a couple of days after these recommendations came out, but overall, the teachers you're hearing from: how are they feeling?
What I'm hearing from educators is: they are excited about returning to school. I was talking to an educator just the other day who said she can't wait to be back in the classroom with her students, teaching them full-time, in person.
"We have to remain vigilant, we have to encourage our neighbors to get vaccinated, but for the most part, there's real excitement about returning to school."
Now, that doesn't mean that there's still not some fear out there of the virus. It should be a healthy concern. But you know, for the most part, our folks want to be back with their students. There may be some inconveniences with the masks, and we have to remain vigilant, we have to encourage our neighbors to get vaccinated, but for the most part, there's real excitement about returning to school as soon as we rest up for the remainder of the summer break.
VPR's Connor Cyrus contributed reporting to this story.
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