Schools in Vermont can no longer require students or staff — whether vaccinated or not — to wear masks.
The news on Tuesday took several K-12 leaders by surprise. Several had reported earlier that they planned to require masking indoors, despite the state relaxing its Covid-19 restrictions now that 80% of eligible Vermonters have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Some parents were also taken aback — including Kate Larose of Canaan. She was thrown completely off-guard, she said, when she walked her immunocompromised 8-year-old to school and was greeted by peels of delight from his classmates.
“They were all like, ‘Jaxon, Jaxon, take off your mask! We don’t have to wear them anymore,’” Larose said. “It was like this celebratory, jubilant thing. Like Victory Day.”
Alarmed, Larose consulted a teacher, who confirmed the new rules — although the educator expressed a lack of clarity about what the latest guidance from the state might mean.
Confusion about the state’s latest directive on Tuesday appeared to be widespread. Several superintendents reported that they would recommend, but no longer require, masking indoors. Others said just the opposite and that a mandate would remain in place — at least indoors.
Asked by a VTDigger reporter what schools could or couldn’t do, Agency of Education spokesperson Ted Fisher replied Tuesday afternoon with a one-paragraph “clarification” that had just been distributed to superintendents. Schools “should recommend, but not require mask use by unvaccinated students and staff,” it said.
“Can I change my answer?” Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Lynn Cota wrote to VTDigger shortly after. “Secretary French has now clarified that we can only recommend masks for unvaccinated individuals, not require them.”
The new guidance leaves K-12 schools with fewer enforcement tools than private businesses. Bars, restaurants and retailers retain the right to require masking under state rules.
While schools should recommend that unvaccinated individuals remain masked, per Vermont Department of Health guidelines, they cannot require it.
“It [is] the Agency of Education’s expectation that districts will not impose more restrictive rules, including masks, than the State has issued,” the agency said in its new guidance.
While Vermont’s top-line vaccination rate is the best in the country, young children represent a substantial population of unvaccinated people. Kids under 12 still are not eligible for the shots. And teens still have relatively low vaccination rates compared to other age cohorts. Only 55% of people ages 12-15 are vaccinated, according to VDH data, and only about 68% of 16- and 17-year olds have received a shot.
Benjamin Lee, an associate professor in the pediatrics department at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine, said there’s a “rationale for masks to be worn indoors” when large groups of unvaccinated people are together.
“And so, you know, by definition that would involve any schools where there are going to be children who are not eligible,” he said.
Still, Lee stopped short of saying he disagreed with a decision to drop mask mandates in schools. The state’s vaccination campaign led daily case counts to plummet into the single digits, he said.
But he also said the matter would become all the more pressing in the fall if a vaccine wasn’t yet widely available for younger kids, particularly as temperatures dropped and more activities moved indoors.
“I do think that there is a risk there that if we’re looking at the start of a respiratory viral season and we’ll have large numbers of unvaccinated kids clustered together, that there would be a risk there, even if there isn’t a lot of virus circulating now,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Canaan, Larose no longer thinks it’ll be safe enough to send Jaxon to summer school, even though he’s behind and needs it to catch up. Essex County, where her family lives, has the lowest vaccination rate in the state — just shy of 57%, according to the most recent state data.
Larose does not feel equipped to homeschool and wonders where exactly she’ll find a qualified tutor in the most remote part of the state. She chafes at rhetoric from state officials that frame pandemic-era protocols solely as “restrictions,” instead of as protections that allow families like hers to stay safe and participate in the community.
“It’s all about restrictions — ‘let’s get rid of these restrictions.’ And, ‘oh yeah, there’s these other Vermonters that are at risk. But the vast majority of us are all right. So let’s have fun this summer,’” she said.
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