By Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
Vermont officials are continuing to prepare for children to return to the classroom next month, with Gov. Phil Scott saying at a press conference Friday, July 17, that it is “vitally important” to reopen schools.
Administration officials and public health experts said Friday that Vermont’s situation with Covid-19 continues to support state plans to reopen schools for in-person instruction next month.
“Given our current positive trends, we also need to aim for, and plan for, school openings,” Scott said. “Because if our data shows we can do it safely, it’s the very best option for our kids.”
As the Trump administration has pressed for schools across the country to open, some districts, including in California and Georgia, have postponed the resumption of in-person instruction as Covid-19 cases surge.
Scott said he’s “concerned” by the trends in other parts of the country, and fears that could happen in Vermont.
“While our trends still look really good here in Vermont, we’re seeing a forest fire take hold across the South and West,” he said. “And I’m worried it will backtrack to the Northeast, and eventually affect us in Vermont.”
However, he and other members of his administration said the data in Vermont indicates the state is in an appropriate position to open schools for the fall, with guidelines in place to prevent transmission.
“At this time, our Vermont data continues to support the safe opening of schools, and we are ready to reassess at any point,” Health Commissioner Mark Levine said.
Dr. William Raszka, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine, said research shows that children are less likely to be affected by Covid-19, less likely to develop severe symptoms, and seem less likely to transmit the virus. Raszka, with his colleague Dr. Benjamin Lee, recently published a commentary in the journal Pediatrics, on transmission of the virus by children.
Raszka cited research from Switzerland, China, Norway and other countries that shows transmission tends to be low among children in school settings. In France, one infected 9-year-old exposed more than 980; none contracted it, Raszka said. Research also shows teachers in schools have the same rate of infection as adults in the community, he said.
He said that mitigation strategies are important for reducing transmission, particularly highlighting masks.
“We believe that universal face cloth coverings will be an important part of any school education policy,” he said.
State Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso said that Vermont has had experience over the past several months with child care settings open, “and we strongly feel at the health department that the data currently supports opening of school,” Kelso said.
In Vermont, children aged 9 and younger comprise about 3% of total cases in the state, Kelso said; children between the ages of 10 and 19 make up 7% of Vermont’s cases.
Kelso said that the guidelines the state issued for reopening schools aims to keep the virus out of schools, with strategies like daily health screenings and prevent it from spreading within schools with physical distancing protocols.
Scott said schools — like other entities in Vermont — will operate differently because of the virus.
“Classrooms might not be full for the foreseeable future. Nor will school cafeterias or gymnasiums, and we expect to use a hybrid model in which remote learning and remote curriculums will be a major factor,” he said.
Scott emphasized the need for children to have the structure of school and the interactions with fellow students and teachers for their development. Remote learning has also exacerbated equity gaps, he said.
Within Vermont, questions and concerns have arisen as schools move toward reopening next month. Some parents and community members remain uneasy about bringing students back to the classroom.
The Vermont-NEA pushed the administration to create a new commission to involve more school employees in the planning process, a request Education Secretary Dan French refused, saying that many different players have been included.
School districts are now in the process of figuring out how to implement the state’s reopening guidelines, which include daily health and temperature screenings, required masks, and efforts to encourage physical distancing.