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‘A Challenging Position:’ With Minimal Guidance From The Scott Administration, Administrators Craft Back-To-School COVID Guidelines

Sign that reads Practice Social Distancing in walkway at Milton Middle School
Abagael Giles
VPR File
A sign offers students a reminder at Milton Middle School, on the first day of school last year. Absent statewide mandates for safety protocols in schools, this year, things could look a little different in some districts.

As Vermont students head back to school amid rising COVID-19 case counts, a growing number of lawmakers and school administrators are wading into the fight over wearing masks in the classroom.

At a recent meeting of the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union school board in Enosburg Falls upset parents berated school board members. In an Aug. 19 letter, Harwood Unified Union School District Superintendent Brigid Nease said that as administrators finalized COVID policies for the incoming school year, the backlash was, in some cases, intense.

“One of my superintendent colleagues has received a death threat,” Nease wrote. “Some principals are receiving letters from groups threatening to storm the schools on the first day. Leaders are receiving voicemails from very angry community members screaming at them.”

Last school year, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus. That measure required schools to follow detailed state guidance. It included a mask requirement for all staff and students and things like detailed guidance on ventilation in classrooms and school buses.

But this year, there is no state of emergency, and the guidance from the Department of Education is just two pages long. The administration recommends but does not mandate face coverings. Decisions around whether to require masks and many other public health measures are being left up to local districts.

More from VPR: House Speaker Jill Krowinski Calls On Gov. Scott To Issue Mask Mandate For Vermont's Schools

Earlier this week, Democratic House Speaker Jill Krowinski told VPR she wants the state to mandate masks in schools.

“And I think if there was a universal policy, it would really help to reduce some of the confusion and anxiety, especially that Vermonters, especially parents and teachers, are feeling right now.”
Jill Krowinski, Speaker of the Vermont House

“And I think if there was a universal policy, it would really help to reduce some of the confusion and anxiety, especially that Vermonters, especially parents and teachers, are feeling right now,” she said.

Scott has been adamant that with more than 85% of the eligible population having at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the picture today looks much different than it did last year.

“Until such time as there is an emergency, there's no reason to impose one,” the governor said at his weekly press briefing Tuesday, Aug. 24 . “You don't want to abuse this."

Regardless of the political debates, many students are now back in classrooms. Aimee Alexander teaches government at North Country Union High School in Newport, where the district is requiring masks. She says her students are thrilled to be back in school full-time.

“I feel like most of our students are going to wear their masks because they want to be here,” she said. “They didn't like last year; they didn't like a hybrid situation and they're willing to do whatever they need to stay."

For more on how district officials are balancing these policy decisions, VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with David Younce, the superintendent of the Mill River Unified Union School District in Rutland County and the president of the Vermont superintendent's Association. Their conversation is below and has been edited for clarity.

David Younce: School boards are in a challenging position. You know, they have to make decisions that exercise the duty of care responsibility that we have as superintendents and school board members to take care of our students. That was made much easier for school districts last year when there was extensive and clear guidance under the state of emergency that was handed to us, in terms of how schools should operate and what that decision making should look like.

But in the current window we're in, where we're absent a state of emergency, but there are still big decisions that need to be made, those local decisions are tough, and the people making those decisions are not medical experts. They're not public health experts.

And I'm seeing superintendents and local boards having to rely not only on the medical guidance that were given from statewide sources, but also need to be open to the feedback that they hear from their communities to make those decisions. And in a nutshell, that can be a really volatile process.

Henry Epp: Well, I mean, is that a frustration that you don't have the backing of that state of emergency and the requirements that came with that last year?

Yeah, I don't know that I'd call it a frustration, but I would call it a significant challenge. If you asked me last year, how an average superintendent was feeling going into the school year — of course no one was feeling good about COVID — but in terms of what they were doing, how superintendents were approaching opening schools and feeling confident that everything possible that could be done to limit COVID impacts [was done] — I think people felt pretty good about that.

We're in a different era. Now we're in a different phase. And with that, there's more unknown at the moment; there's more volatility. And I would say the seas are kind of unsteady with all the different local decisions and discussions that are being made. So, while it's not frustrating, it's incredibly challenging to navigate those unsteady seas and to exhibit good leadership in the process of that.

Do you feel like you're getting clarity from the state in terms of what you should be doing as local school leaders?

I think the state has been clear in their recommendations, right? We've heard the governor state that he strongly recommends masking, recommends the vaccine rates continue to climb, and identifies that those are the important strategies to help get us through this current phase.

I think we are getting a degree of clarity through the guidance that came from the Agency of Ed, the Department of Health. However, you know, the most recent round of guidance was two pages compared to the 41 pages that we experienced last year. So, the lack of content and the transition to local-based decisions about what's best and what strategies to put in place — that's a real struggle for folks.

But I also understand in my role, both from a local and a statewide perspective, I do understand the levers that the governor has available to himself to pull and the levers that he doesn't.

More from NPR: Breakthrough COVID Infections Add Even More Chaos To School's Start In 2021

Well, one of the levers that is at the governor's disposal would be to reinstate a state of emergency, which could allow the state to require masks for students and staff in Vermont schools. Some people have called for that. Would you support that move: reinstating a state of emergency so that masking would be required throughout the state?

You know, I don't think that I, as a single individual, and as a local superintendent, I don't think that I would encourage returning to a state of emergency.

"... local decisions are tough, and the people making those decisions are not medical experts. They're not public health experts."
David Younce, superintendent at Mill River Unified School District

My opinion is that we are in a different phase of the virus than we were when things started. And my understanding of the state of the emergency, more than anything, was that it was designed to protect our systems from failing, to protect our health system from becoming overwhelmed and protect our schools from needing to fully shut down.

So, I completely get the context of why that existed then, and why it does not now. I also understand that from a state government standpoint, returning to a state of emergency could be viewed as a regression, could be viewed as a loss of progress. And I suspect that officials in state government, the governor included, are trying to find pathways by which to be as directive as possible, just short of something along the lines of a state of emergency. And I expect if I were in the same position, I might be approaching it the same way.

Short of a state of emergency and masking requirements, do you feel like there's more the state could be offering you and other school district leaders at this point?

I think school district leaders statewide are interested in more clarity around some of the specifics of what school operations ideally should look like under the current circumstances.

You know, as an example, we do know that we need to treat mealtimes, lunchtimes differently because those are by nature unmasked situations inside schools. We've been given some direction on that, but I do think that local leaders would be much more interested in how that plays out.

And then ultimately, I think just stronger language. Stronger language communicating to the public in general that even though local boards are currently tasked with making decisions and local superintendents are tasked with making decisions, that state government really strongly stands behind specific recommendations, and strongly encourages boards and superintendents to support those recommendations because they find it to be in the best interest of public health in Vermont on the whole.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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