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Reporter Debrief: Nearly All Vermont School Districts Have Approved Mask Mandates

A photo of ziplock bags holding masks pinned to a clothesline hanging between trees with greenery on the ground
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
VPR
The Brattleboro Mask Tree is up and running again. The community project was started last year, but then was stopped earlier this spring as COVID numbers improved. With the spread of the delta variant, and a mask mandate reinstated in town, the tree is once again stocked with free, handmade masks.

It's only been a few days since students in Vermont returned to the classroom. But COVID-19 is already disrupting in-person learning at some schools.

East Montpelier Elementary School sent all of its students home for the week after two people in the school tested positive for the disease. And Secretary of Education Dan French says the delta variant will likely lead to other school closures as well.

VPR's Henry Epp spoke with reporter Peter Hirschfeld, who has been following this news. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So can you tell us about the school closures so far this year, and the circumstances that prompted them?

Peter Hirschfeld: Yeah, Henry, administrators at Washington Central Supervisory Union sent an email to parents of students at East Montpelier Elementary yesterday. They said they'd confirmed two cases of COVID at the school, and that as a result, the school was closing starting today, and that students are gonna be going to full remote learning until at least the end of this week.

Then a few miles down the road in Plainfield, Twinfield Union School is also dealing with some COVID-related disruptions. The superintendent there tells me that due to some possible COVID exposures, all students in kindergarten through sixth grade were out yesterday. And he said that kids in kindergarten, second grade and sixth grade are still out today.

It's a reminder right at the outset of the school year that even with a vaccination rate of more than 80% for school staff, and more than 75% for children aged 12 to 17, COVID is still a very live issue for school districts.

The Agency of Education recommended that all school districts adopt universal mask mandates at the beginning of the school year, at least, to control the spread of COVID. Based on what Education Secretary Dan French said at today's COVID briefing, it sounds like most districts are following that advice, right?

Yeah, it was interesting, the Agency of Education had previously said that it was not tracking COVID mitigation protocols in individual districts, but apparently Education Secretary Dan French has since decided to gather that information. And what he told us today is that all but one school district, and that's up at Canaan, has decided to follow the Agency of Education advice and institute a mandatory masking policy for all students and staff regardless of their vaccination status.

Phil Scott has taken a lot of heat of late for refusing to institute a statewide mask mandate for schools from on high. But Scott said to his detractors today that, look, my administration has effectively instituted a mask mandate without actually having to require it.

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

And education officials are saying they're very bullish on other COVID mitigation protocols as well. The Agency of Education asked districts to participate in mass surveillance testing of students and staff this year. We learned today that 47 of the 52 school districts in the state say they're in.

Education Secretary Dan French says this surveillance testing is going to lead to the discovery of a lot of asymptomatic cases that we'd never otherwise know about. And he says those cases may well lead to disruptions in-person learning, where you find a case or a few cases and you have to shut things down for a couple days.

But he says parents and teachers and administrators can rest assured that there's a really robust infrastructure in place right now to identify the virus as soon as it infiltrates the school, and that there are mitigation protocols to make sure it doesn't spread widely once it's there.

The Vermont Medical Society and the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in earlier today on the issue of COVID mitigation rules in schools. And it sounds like they are not on the same page as Gov. Scott and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine. Where do their recommendations differ from where state leaders are?

So those medical organizations were really happy to see the Scott administration recommend that districts adopt mask mandates at the beginning of the school year. Where they part is the second part of that recommendation, where the administration says that once 80% of eligible students get vaccinated at an individual school, then that school should lift its masking requirement.

Vermont Medical Society, American Academy of Pediatrics as well as the University of Vermont Children's Hospital say that mandate should remain in place until all students have a chance to get vaccinated, and they're talking here about students 12 and younger who aren't yet eligible for the vaccine. Until they are, these organizations say mask mandates should stay in place.

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

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