MONTPELIER – As state officials work to strengthen COVID-19 testing in Vermont schools, some feel they could be asking too much of staff members who already have a lot on their plates.
Last week, officials distributed resources and information to all Vermont schools to help establish COVID-19 response testing while bolstering the existing toolbelt with rapid testing. It’s all part of an effort to keep kids in school and avoid lengthy quarantines by reducing turnaround time for test results.
While it’s expected to take some pressure off staff members that had been bogged down with contact tracing work, the new testing tools could also present new challenges.
“A major bottleneck for implementing testing will be staffing,” said Education Secretary Dan French. “I expect many schools will consider hiring additional staff or re-deploying staff they already have on hand.”
While groups like the Vermont NEA are excited about the prospect of students being able to stay in school without interruptions due to quarantining, the prospect of finding new hires or using existing staff for the effort hasn’t been met with much enthusiasm.
“The suggestion that you can repurpose folks from education to this does not accurately reflect what’s going on in our schools,” said Darren Allen, Communications Director for the Vermont NEA. “There just aren’t enough folks and enough hours in the day to do everything that’s expected of them.”
It’s a question Secretary French and Governor Phil Scott were posed at Tuesday’s briefing – If schools were already having a hard time finding paraeducators, school bus drivers and other support staff, how can they be expected to fill new positions for COVID-19 testing?
Governor Scott said it’s a symptom of the broader workforce shortage dilemmas he’s been highlighting since he took office.
“We’re all going to have to dig deep to get through it, as every sector has tried to do,” Governor Scott said.
“My conclusion is that there needs to be a priority on testing, because it accomplishes both our educational goals and our health goals,” Secretary French said. “I think we’re going to have to figure that out just working with what we have, to a certain extent.”
Governor Scott was also asked if its possible for staffing help to be brought in via the Vermont National Guard, but that would also bring about some workforce challenges.
“We are still using the Guard in some of our vaccination clinics, if we ask for some more Guard people, it impacts other sectors,” Governor Scott said. “They’re a civilian military, so we’d be calling them in to active duty and taking them away from their other day job.”
Families will be hearing directly from schools about testing programs, and schools are scheduled to get additional resources and info this week.
For more information on the testing program, visit the Agency of Education website.