This story was updated at 4 pm Wednesday.
Vermont’s K-12 schools will open for in-person instruction this fall, state officials announced Wednesday. Students and staff will undergo a health questionnaire and temperature checks every day, and the state will prepare alternatives for remote learning if schools need to close.
“We’re learning more every day” about controlling the spread of the Covid-19 virus, said Vermont Gov. Phil Scott at his regular Covid-19 press conference. “We know more about this virus now and have the tools to help prevent the spread today that we didn’t have three months ago, which helps us prepare for this transition back to school.”
Vermont schools closed abruptly in March when the state shut down most public activities to prevent the spread of the virus. School officials rapidly worked to make the transition to online instruction, with many parents playing the role of teacher as they juggled doing their own jobs remotely. But teachers in Vermont and around the country report that student learning and achievement, as well as social experience, has suffered during the pandemic; many teachers say they have students who haven’t attended online classes in weeks.
Getting students back to the normalcy of the classroom setting is vital, said Scott and Dan French, the state’s secretary of education.
"It is vital to the well being of our students that we endeavor to reopen our school so we can address their social emotional and educational needs, while at the same time getting back to the normal routines and community activities that characterize our way of life in Vermont," French said.
“As much as coronavirus is a public health emergency, in many cases it has been an educational emergency,” French said. “Speaking on behalf of all the educators in the state, we’re anxious to get back to the work and very appreciative of parents and their flexibility in getting through this difficult time.”
But French emphasized, as he has in the past, that closures at certain schools – or within a larger region – are likely to arise on a rolling basis as outbreaks of the virus crop up.
"In anticipation of the need for reactive school closures, our guidance describes several levels or steps districts will take depending on the public health circumstances in their communities,” he said.
Agency officials have said for weeks that they were planning for an in-person fall, although the tone of Wednesday’s messaging was more confident than it has been in the past. French also elaborated further on what schools will be required to do, including daily health checks to make sure symptomatic students and staff are not on campus, and mandatory masks for school employees but not students.
The governor also said at the press conference that an outbreak reported several days ago in Winooski has now hit 74 cases, with nine new cases overall reported Sunday. The Winooski outbreak has spread to Burlington and some other Chittenden County towns, said Health Commissioner Mark Levine, but 80% of those cases are in Winooski. He said the average age is 20 in that outbreak, and one in five is reporting symptoms.
Overall, the state has seen 1,100 cases of Covid-19, with 55 deaths, Levine said.
Scott and other officials are relying heavily on testing to allow the state to reopen its businesses and other institutions, work that has been going on since April. The state has carried out nearly 8,700 tests in the last week, Scott said. The positivity rate in that testing is 2% or lower, Levine said.
French said the Agency of Education will release guidance about school reopenings in coming days. There will be changes to school calendars and attendance policies, and education officials will be asking the Legislature for additional money to accommodate them, he said. Students and staff will fill out questionnaires about health symptoms, contacts with others every day, and all will have their temperature taken before entering the buildings.
“Please know we are working with Vermont’s colleges and universities as well in order for them to reopen this fall too,” he said. “Our decisions will be based on the data we get closer to September. But for our entire educational system, it’s critical we finalize the plan now so we can reopen in the fall.”
French and Levine avoided answering reporters’ questions about whether parents or staff had said they were worried about reopening in-person learning, instead saying that they are learning more about the science of Covid-19 infection all the time. They are working with the University of Vermont medical center, Vermont pediatricians, and other groups to come up with the safety rules.
“It’s likely we’ll have to change, amend or add to this guidance in coming months,” French said.
“There is no perfect replacement for the learning that takes place in a school building,” Scott said. “This approach cannot continue without kids falling behind in their schoolwork and the social development that takes place.”
The National Education Association responded to the Scott Administration’s announcement June 10 by saying the educators’ union intends to work on safety guidance as well.
“It is unfortunate that Gov. Phil Scott and Education Secretary Dan French chose to make this announcement before the real hard work of planning and preparation has been completed,” said Don Tinney, an English teacher who is president of the NEA in Vermont. He said the union has put together a task force of educators to talk about safety.
“Our message is simple: we want schools to reopen,” Tinney said. “But only after the hard work with all stakeholders – parents, educators, and health experts – can we realistically and safely ask our students and educators to resume in-person instruction.”
The state is also taking steps to address its housing of the homeless. With shelters scaled down to help with social distancing, the state has already spent more than $13.5 million to house 1,500 homeless people in hotels and motels. The governor’s proposed $400 million Covid-19 recovery package includes assistance for permanent housing and for rental assistance.
Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, said June 10 that helping people make the transition to permanent housing is a priority.
“It really doesn’t meet the needs of the homeless,” he said of the hotel and motel housing. “There are no services. We can’t transition all at once, but we need to do this gradually.”
Lola Duffort contributed reporting.
If you want to keep tabs on Vermont's education news, sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on higher education, early childhood programs and K-12 education policy.