As Vermont schools plan to reopen next month, some pediatricians are calling on districts to prioritize full-time, in-person learning at the elementary level, as well as for students with special needs.

The American Academy of Pediatrics Vermont Chapter (AAPVT) believes the health risks of reopening schools need to be weighed with the developmental risks of limiting in-person classes.

“We know this early education period for brain development is so key, and that families are really supported by the schools in so many ways beyond education,” said Dr. Jill Rinehart, an attending physician at the University of Vermont Medical Center and director of the Pediatric Residency program. “That’s the hole that’s left when we think about keeping kids out of school.”

Rinehart also recently served as AAPVT president. The non-profit organization is dedicated to improving the physical, mental, and social health of Vermont’s infants, children, adolescents, and young adults.

AAPVT believes that Vermont’s falling case totals combined with data that shows some children are less likely to become infected means in-person classes should be prioritized for the good of students.

Rinehart said an extended stretch of remote learning wouldn’t be a viable option for elementary school students and students with special needs.

“Occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech and language therapy, that population is missing out,” Rinehart said. “So much so that we’re seeing our young people in Vermont having regression, losing some of the skills they’ve had up to now.”

As part of their proposed hybrid schedule, the Burlington School District had floated the possibility of Fridays being an additional in-person education day for students with special needs. Superintendent Thomas Flanagan has acknowledged some students may need to be in school five days a week.

“We’re working on that, and taking each human’s individual plan at a time and evaluating the way we’ll be able to best support their needs,” Flanagan said. “My hope is that we get back to school, if school is safe, we build confidence and families and staff feel comfortable coming back to school more often.”

Those in favor of in-person learning for certain students also pointed to the state’s experience reopening childcare in June as a sign that school reopenings can be done safely.