If students go to a party, can they then go to school? State mulls a policy decision

Ninth-grade students socially distance themselves while sitting in their own folding chairs rather than desks in Emily Gilmore’s World History class in South Burlington High School in September. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Students are not allowed, under state guidelines, to come to school if they have a fever, had close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus, or if they’ve traveled out of state and not yet completed quarantine.

But what if they go to a party? Or deer camp?

Amid a record-breaking surge in cases of Covid-19, Gov. Phil Scott last week prohibited most multi-household gatherings in an effort to curb the sudden spread of the virus. But conspicuously absent from that order were any enforcement mechanisms.

And schools, meanwhile, have not been given explicit direction by the state about how to handle situations when they know students aren’t following the rules. And even if they did, administrators say it is both awkward — and, on a practical level, difficult — to effectively police the private lives of the families they serve.

In the Orleans Central Supervisory Union, superintendent Bev Davis said a state official told her a few days ago she could not send kids home from school for flouting the new mandate.

“The Department of Health told us that the executive order was not meant to exclude kids from schools. So if we are aware that kids are going with their families to deer camp, or socializing, going to parties or whatever, we’re told we can’t exclude them from school,” she said.

Davis isn’t sure she wants the responsibility of watching what students do outside of school anyway, and she worries if it could just drive the behavior underground. 

But her faculty and staff are increasingly anxious, she said, particularly as case counts tick up in the Northeast Kingdom. Orleans Central recorded four different Covid-19 cases in the past week — their first ever.

“Teachers go to do their grocery shopping and see people without masks. They go to get gas and they see people without masks,” Davis said. “They see all of this. They hear their kids talking about the big crowd at the birthday party, the big crowd at the Halloween party.”

It’s unclear what authority schools have to send kids home if they or their families socialize in defiance of the governor’s order. As a general rule, schools are legally required to provide an education to children who live within the district’s boundaries.

For now, Agency of Education guidelines are silent on the matter. But Education Secretary Dan French said Friday the state is exploring whether to include questions about multi-household gatherings in the daily check staff and students must complete each day in order to attend in-person school. Those health checks currently require, for example, that students answer questions about whether they’ve recently traveled out of state. If they answer that they have, and the quarantine period hasn’t elapsed, they’re sent home.

Schools aren’t necessarily in a good position to enforce the governor’s latest order, French said. And their primary function is mostly to educate students and staff about the importance of compliance. But making students and staff answer those questions every day might nevertheless encourage greater compliance, he said.

“We’re aware of the issue and it’s something we’re working on,” he said during the governor’s twice-weekly Covid-19 press conference.

Is permission needed?

In the absence, for now, of state regulations on the matter, Vermont-NEA president Don Tinney said local administrators should develop their own rules to keep schools safe.

“Even if the state itself won’t insist that its guidance be followed, we urge all districts to have policies in place to protect all students and school employees in these instances,” Tinney said in a statement.

In the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, superintendent Jeanne Collins said in the absence of more guidance she isn’t looking to the state for permission.

“Sometimes I think we get too hung up on having the state say something that we know is common sense. I know that some of my colleagues want the state to rule on it. (But) I’m not asking for that guidance. I feel like I have that authority,” she said.

She said her district has an all-remote learning option available for families, which makes this an easier call. And Collins said she’d need hard proof — say, if the police who broke up a party could identify the kids who attended. 

But if she knew with a good degree of certainty a student had been at an event that clearly violated the governor’s order, the superintendent said she wouldn’t hesitate to tell that student to go home and quarantine.

Parent survey

Montpelier-Roxbury School District superintendent Libby Bonesteel agreed it would be a no-brainer to send a kid home if she had hard evidence they attended a big gathering. The district is also being proactive about the holidays, and has sent home a survey to parents to find out if they plan to travel or have out-of-state guests over for Thanksgiving. Families that said yes got a phone call from district staff explaining quarantine requirements. Families that didn’t respond got follow-up phone calls.

“I firmly believe when people call who are genuinely concerned with the safety of students and staff and teachers — I hope that has maybe more bearing on what decisions they make,” she said.

Bonesteel freely acknowledged it’s often impossible to know for sure if people are being honest about their plans, or to prove that such-and-such gathering occurred. The district has had a few experiences where staff members heard kids talking about what they did over the weekend, and then gotten a different story when staff called home. 

Ultimately, Bonesteel said, it will all come down to trust.

“When that trust breaks down, that’s when we have to make some harder decisions about our schools and our staff and our students,” she said.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is VTDigger's education reporter. Prior to Digger, Lola covered schools for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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