Pressure to mandate masks in Vermont schools continues to grow

Coronavirus

Some Vermont school officials called on Gov. Phil Scott Tuesday to require masks in schools and indoors in parts of the state where there is substantial or high rates of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Two school superintendents who spoke during a Tuesday news conference said a statewide mandate to require masks in schools rather than the recommendation now in place would make it easier for them and their colleagues to protect children during the pandemic.

All but one school district in Vermont is now requiring masks.

In some districts, school administrators have been subjected to vocal members of the public who object to the requirements, said Libby Bonesteel, the superintendent in the Montpelier-Roxbury school district.

“The vitriol that is being thrown at them right now is not fair, they shouldn’t have to deal with what they are getting,” Bonesteel said, although she noted there has been little objection to the requirement in her district. “I think a universal mandate would help that situation.”

Bonesteel and St. Johnsbury School Superintendent Brian Ricca said their focus is on keeping children safe. Unlike last year when the Agency of Education issued detailed guidance on dealing with the pandemic, they feel they’re largely on their own.

Ricca said three-quarters of the students in his district are not old enough to be vaccinated. “I feel a real visceral need to protect students who don’t even have a chance to vaccinated yet,” he said.

The two superintendents and others who spoke Tuesday are the latest in a growing group of officials to call on the state to do more to fight COVID-19.

Earlier this month at least five groups, including the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital, called for universal masking in schools until children under age 12 become eligible to be vaccinated.

Last month, more than 90 employees of the Vermont Health Department urged the state to do more to fight the surge in COVID-19 cases.

Currently, the Vermont Agency of Education is recommending that schools require masks for the first 10 days of school. The requirement could be lifted once a school reaches 80% of its population being vaccinated.

Children under age 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated. It’s likely to be several months before a vaccine for children under 12 is authorized.

Scott spokesperson Jason Maulucci said Tuesday in an email that Vermont, except for one small school district, has achieved a near universal mask mandate in schools. Vermont’s high-rate of vaccination for people over age 12 has helped keep the infection rate in the state low.

“Absent a declared state of emergency, the governor cannot issue broad mandates that were necessary in 2020 and the first half of 2021,” he said.

Given the state of the virus the governor does not believe a return to a state of emergency is warranted.

Maulucci said that on Wednesday during his weekly virus briefing, Scott and Education Secretary Daniel French will be discussing an update to the masking guidelines.

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