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Rutland City Public Schools weathering COVID spike with students back from the holidays

An illustration shows students in class wearing face masks
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An illustration shows students in class wearing face masks

Many Vermont public school students returned from the holiday break this week. Meanwhile, the state’s COVID surge continues, with officials reporting a record-breaking 2,188 new cases Thursday. Though some school districts have escaped the impact, others have seen class disrupted as the omicron variant sweeps the state.

VPR’s Kevin Trevellyan caught up with Rutland City Public Schools COVID Coordinator Justine Franko during the school day to hear how the district’s first week back was going. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Kevin Trevellyan: We've already seen some Vermont school districts cancel classes and shift to remote learning this week due to COVID and staff shortages. What's the situation like in Rutland City?

Justine Franko: Where are we at? We are struggling, of course. And we have a lot of cases, certainly at the high school level. We also have a lot of cases in the Intermediate School, which is the second-largest school in the district. And all the other schools — the elementary schools and the middle schools — are catching up. They're really feeling the strain. We're all feeling the strain right now.

How many positive cases has your district seen so far?

From Monday on, we probably have, district wide, about 125 or 130 cases. But those are just the known ones.

The state launched a program called Test to Stay late last year that allows students to stay in school if they test negative for COVID for seven consecutive days — the idea there is to monitor outbreaks while keeping kids in class. Has Rutland City Schools adopted those guidelines during this first week back?

We were a little slow to begin, because like some of the other districts in Vermont we were really overrun [with COVID] and short staffed because of it. So we were dealing with contact tracing and just making sure that we had bodies in classrooms to teach. And I mean, it is successful. Kids are coming in; we're allowing them to be in the school and learn. And that's very different than it was when we would have them quarantine and sit at home and maybe participate, and maybe not.

Do you think the district has the resources to run that program, between the tests and the staffing?

Yes. You know, we're putting it together piecemeal and we're making it happen. And everyone is just burning the midnight oil and doing what they can. I've been training people and we've had time to work on it. We had that month to work on it. And so I think we were pretty ready to do it.

The CDC recently changed its guidance to shorten the amount of time an asymptomatic person needs to quarantine after catching COVID, from 10 days down to five days. The state adopted those guidelines before the holidays with an extra recommendation to test at the end of quarantine, if possible. Can you describe the process of adopting those guidelines — especially on relatively short notice?

Well, the guidance came out at the end of the year; it may have been on [Dec. 31]. I believe it was very rapid. We were in kind of a holiday mode; so not really expecting it. So it came out very quickly. And it was a little bit of a tailspin for us. And we have just been pretty much hanging on to the guidance set on the websites. And waiting very patiently — perhaps impatiently — on the guidance that just really hasn't come out yet. Which is typically not how it goes.

Usually we have these reports, and we have discussions. We have meetings, and we know what's coming. But it's just kind of been a backwards process for us. So I think it's causing a lot of friction between the parents and the people who are having to dole out this information to people — because we just aren't completely certain about what we're telling people.

As the district's COVID coordinator, have you considered whether it would be best to go remote or cancel classes?

I've recommended from the health standpoint that that would be an option on the table, and a very strong one to consider. Because our students may be stronger and safer when they get COVID, but they may have family members who are weaker or immune compromised. Or not able to be vaccinated — older, younger. And I worry about those extended family members.

More from VPR: Hey Vermonters, here’s what to do if you think you might have COVID

Do you sense much appetite in the district for canceling school or going remote?

The superintendent and I have discussions about it. And it's just not a decision that they're going to make right now. I mean, the decision will be to keep the classes open.

Lastly, in a general sense, do you think this situation is sustainable? And not just for teachers and staff, but also the kids?

There's certainly a lot of anxiety among the students that I pick up on as a school nurse. But I think they're very resilient, and they're happy to be here for the most part. That's what I see.

I think that every sector of society is really struggling with how much work we're all having to take on when there are sick people. So is it sustainable? You know, we're doing it. It's one foot in front of the other. I hope so but I think it's incredibly challenging. Because it's just a little bit like an ocean. The waves keep coming and we can't push pause on it — they just keep coming.

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