Teachers’ union slams state’s abandonment of contact tracing, testing in schools

Christine Soychak, who works at the local high school, performs a rapid antigen covid-19 test on a student at the Enosburgh Public Safety Building on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. The testing is part of the state of Vermont's “Test to Stay” program, where rapid antigen tests are given to unvaccinated students and staff who are close contacts of a positive Covid-19 case. On Friday, the Agency of Education abruptly ended the testing. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vermont’s teachers’ union is calling Friday’s decision to end contact tracing and surveillance testing a “demoralizing blow” to anyone involved in the state’s school system, including students and their parents.

In a statement issued Saturday, the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, the largest union in the state, criticized the Agency of Education’s abrupt decision amid record-breaking case counts and school closures.

Previewing the policy shift in an email to local school officials Friday, Secretary of Education Dan French promised more guidance early this week and framed the change as an opportunity to relieve educators’ already overburdened workloads.

The state Agency of Education’s new approach appears to shift the burden of “test-to-stay,” a regimen in which close contacts of positive cases take daily rapid tests before the beginning of class, from school staff to the family members of students. 

The union denounced the state’s ever-changing, “tone deaf shifts in safety guidance,” saying in the statement, “The secretary of education decided to commemorate one of the most chaotic weeks ever in Vermont schools by yet another Friday night announcement of yet another abrupt COVID policy shift.”

“By announcing the end of contact tracing and surveillance testing, the state has us bewildered in stripping away two important layers of safety with only vague assurances of something better,” the union said in the statement. “This is unacceptable.”

The teachers’ union called for more tools to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, including rapid tests — a sore subject after teachers and students returned from their winter break to find that many of the rapid tests given to schools by the state Agency of Education last fall expired in late December, according to local school officials. 

In a tweet on Saturday, Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint said the Senate Education Committee had asked French, Health Commissioner Mark Levine and the union to testify on the new guidance on Tuesday. “We know this past week was incredibly hard on schools and families, and this announcement brings more uncertainty and fear for many,” Balint said. 

“Vermont’s school employees — who have been among the front-line heroes of this pandemic — deserve better than late-night policy shifts that will continue to sow chaos in our schools,” the union wrote.

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Jeralyn Darling

About Jeralyn

As VTDigger's news editor, Jeralyn Darling anchors the night desk, often as the final set of eyes on stories before they are published. Before arriving at VTDigger she was a night desk editor at the Valley News, covering the Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire. Jeralyn has spent the last 14 years as a journalist. She holds a BA in journalism and sociology from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. When not at work, Jeralyn can be found on the trail with her husband, in the woods hunting mushrooms or volunteering with animals.

Email: [email protected]

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