Commentary, Opinion

We owe it to our kids

By Governor Phil Scott

Earlier this summer, my team set a goal for our state: If our positive health trends continue, let’s return to in-person instruction for our kids in the fall.

Our core principle has been to help school districts safely provide every child with an education that is as good or better than before the pandemic.

So, we’ve been listening to the experts and following the science — working with our Health Department, and Agency of Education, groups representing school administrators and teachers, and — most importantly — pediatric and infectious disease experts.

And what we continue to hear from public health and pediatric medical professionals is a strong call for in-person instruction in areas with low positivity rates, especially for kids 10 and under.

They point to Vermont’s low case counts, our proven capacity to contain clusters and outbreaks and our experience with childcare centers and summer camps, as well as studies from countries where kids are already in school. They’ve found in-person is better for our kids. In fact, the president of Vermont’s Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Rebecca Bell, observed many of our kids “are not doing okay” following months of remote learning.

But we know how unpredictable this pandemic is, and our data can change quickly. Schools need to be nimble and creative and there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach because each is a bit different. So, our guidance for school reopening also included remote learning and hybrid (a mix of in-person and remote) options.

We know there is anxiety. So, while Vermont’s data and the science would allow for more in-person instruction than many schools are currently planning, I understand the need for caution and the desire for school staff, parents and children to ease into it to build confidence.

Just like we’ve turned the spigot in our economic restart, it makes sense for some schools to start with a cautious hybrid approach. It gives folks time to test the waters and work through stress and anxiety.

We also want schools to take the time to get this right so students can hit the ground running. That’s why I’ve set Sept. 8 as a universal start date for students. This gives schools an additional week to work with staff and to test, and fine tune, the systems they’ve built.

Schools should take this extra time to make sure they — and their in-person and online solutions — are ready and effective, so we can deliver for our children, and build confidence in the public education system’s ability to be flexible and responsive.

Confidence in our ability to contain clusters when they happen is important, too. That’s why we’ve worked hard to build testing and tracing systems that can surround and contain clusters and outbreaks before they become widespread. Because even though studies show transmission in schools will be low while rates in the community are low — which they are in Vermont — the reality is it’s possible there may be cases at a school. But we have an incredible and proven health team that’s ready to act quickly to contain them.

I want to be clear: I understand none of this is ideal, but it’s our reality. I know anxiety is understandably high, even while the data and experts support moving toward in-person instruction.

Fortunately, Vermont is probably in a better position to return to school than any other state — an opportunity to do what’s right for our kids and families because of how successful Vermonters have been in limiting the spread of this virus.

While this pandemic has created countless challenges, we owe it to our kids and their parents to provide them with the best possible education.

It won’t be easy. But I have faith in educators and school boards, because we know they are 100% committed to giving kids the educational opportunities and support they need.

We all have a role to play to support them in this work and in suppressing the virus. There is a big challenge ahead. But, also, a huge opportunity to teach our kids the value of flexibility, creativity, and resiliency.

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