Vermont students return to class as debate over safety measures flares up

Vermont

MONTPELIER, Vt. – State officials outlined the current COVID-19 guidance and recommendations for schools on Tuesday, but some lawmakers are calling on Gov. Phil Scott to consider additional safety measures.

Democratic House Speaker Jill Krowinski said in a statement that teachers and parents want “a statewide strategy for school districts in light of the transmissibility of the Delta variant and the growing number of infections among children not yet eligible for vaccines.

“They are deeply concerned about the lack of a unified strategy that would keep everyone safe from COVID in school environments,” she said. “What is the plan for addressing their concerns?”

The Vermont Agency of Education’s current guidance, released earlier this month, includes the recommendation that masks be worn by all students and staff members for at least the first 10 days of the school year.

The guidance can also be found on the Agency of Education website.

Scott suggested Krowinski’s comments marked a break from Vermont’s nonpartisan approach to the pandemic.

“We’re 100 percent focused on serving Vermonters and doing the right thing,” Governor Scott said. “Playing politics on this issue isn’t going to help the situation or help Vermonters.”

Turning Vermont’s masking recommendations in schools into mask mandates would require declaring another State of Emergency, a path Scott said isn’t necessary based on current COVID activity in the state. He also expressed concerns about overusing the State of Emergency, feeling it could set a bad precedent for future state leaders.

“Again, we knew this would happen,” Governor Scott said. “The cases aren’t expanding dramatically, the hospitalizations are half of what we saw in early parts of this year, so until such time as there is such an emergency, there’s no reason to impose one. You don’t want to abuse this.”

Because decisions are largely left to individual school districts, the experience of students has varied widely across the state.

Elizabeth Pacheco, parent of a fourth-grader at Rick Marcotte Central School in South Burlington, said though there’s concern with the highly contagious Delta variant, the district has been helpful in answering all her questions. She recalled how one teacher went above and beyond to make her family more comfortable.

“She was great about swinging by the house one day, sitting down and answering those questions,” Pacheco said. “If in the next few weeks things don’t look great, maybe we’ll bring her home until she can be vaccinated.”

Alternatively, some school districts have seen decisions on masking emerge as a point of tension.

The St. Albans Messenger reported that last week, 50 parents in the Missisquoi Valley School District protested the mask mandate instituted earlier this month at a school board meeting.

Similar situations across the country have escalated into bitter arguments and even threats, which likely prompted a warning given from Deputy Education Secretary Heather Bouchey.

“You can disagree with their decisions, but it is not okay to threaten or intimidate them, and threats of violence are never acceptable,” Bouchey said. “I also ask that folks please not disrupt the start of school in any way.”

She said education officials will continue to assess the situation as students get back into the classroom and provide additional guidance and updates as needed.

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