MONTPELIER – On Friday, Vermont officials dove into the initial details of the state’s plan to reopen schools while detailing the mental health impact of students’ prolonged isolation.
It was almost a year ago when Governor Phil Scott made the decision to shut down in-person learning due to the pandemic.
Today, roughly 30 percent of schools are fully in-person, 50 percent are hybrid, and about 20 percent remain fully remote.
“Even with the improvements of remote learning and some in-person instruction available, it’s not enough,” Governor Scott said. “As a result, our kids are not okay, and I know that’s not acceptable to any of us. In fact, many kids are really struggling. Some serious enough to end up in our emergency departments.”
Scott has set a goal of getting every student back in the classroom by the end of this school year, or the end of April if possible.
On Friday, Vermont Education Secretary Dan French detailed how the goal will be reached.
“Recovery work will be broken down into phases, with the first phase being the assessment of school district conditions in three focus areas,” French said. “Then, the process will shift to planning and implementation.”
Even early in that process, teachers are being asked to return to the classroom.
“All of these phases, including the assessment phase, require more in-person contact with students,” French said. “So while the recovery process unfolds, we’ll be encouraging districts to implement more in-person instruction.”
Some Vermont educators have signaled that’s going to be a tall order without the promise of getting vaccinated beforehand. The state recently sent out a survey to school staff and childcare providers to get a better idea of how many doses will be needed to get them vaccinated in phase six of the vaccine rollout.
“I understand the worries and the challenges that come along with it,” Governor Scott said. “I know there are logistical obstacles that make it harder than it may sound, but if we can agree on the goal, we can be creative and work through those details. We can clear the roadblocks and achieve this goal while managing cases when they do occur.”
That survey for teachers and school staff is open until Monday. Secretary French said the promise of additional supply due to the emergency use authorization of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should help meet the demand after people with high-risk conditions get their shots.
Meanwhile, others noted that the extended isolation of students has contributed to a rise in their anxiety, stress, sleeplessness and substance misuse, stretching the state’s mental health system thin.
A recent Vermont Department of Mental Health study detailed what that looks like on the ground for local pediatricians, with one unidentified doctor commenting “In September, we had no waitlist – now we have 70-plus on the waitlist. 75 to 80 percent of what I see every day is mental health related for the last 6-9 months.”
Holly Morehouse, Executive Director of Vermont Afterschool, said a year feels very different to someone who is 12, 14 or 16 than it does for an adult.
“This is a year they will not get back, and it’s a year that should be full of milestones,” Morehouse said. “Time hanging out with friends, developing hobbies and interests, venturing out, and benefitting from all the connections and interactions informal and formal that come from being together with adult role models.”