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Vt. officials provide further details on return to school, fall sports

Published: Aug. 11, 2020 at 6:52 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 12, 2020 at 1:47 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - With less than a month left until the start of school, Vermont education officials are releasing new changes to the restart guidance, and one of them puts some students closer together in classrooms.

"Many of our kids are not doing okay -- think about that for just a moment," said Gov. Phil Scott Tuesday, making his case that the state's students need to return to school in the fall to help meet their developmental needs and their families' work situations. He acknowledged there will be COVID cases after schools reopen on September 8, but when asked how many were acceptable, the governor said they'd be assessing that daily. "There's not a set number from my standpoint."

State epidemiologist Patsy Kelso reiterated that Vermont's low case counts mean they can send kids and teachers back to the classrooms. "We can open schools safely," Kelso said. She says the state is working on tools to help schools when cases come up by focusing on decreasing risk of the virus coming into the school, preventing transmission and containing the virus, including procedures for what happens if a student or staff member gets sick. "Just because there's a case of COVID in a classroom doesn't mean there's a case of close contact in the classroom."

Tuesday, the Agency of Education also released changes to the guidance for reopening schools that include:

  • Allowing parents to do the daily health checks for their kids and staff can take kids’ temperatures anytime before the child enters the school.
  • Strongly recommending K-5 students to do in-person learning.
  • Loosening the requirements for distancing for the youngest learners. Children under 10 -- now only have to be three to six-feet apart instead of six.

"For younger children, staying three-feet apart is enough to prevent the majority of transmissions," Kelso said.

We asked how that reconciled with some new research that points to children being able to carry high levels of the coronavirus. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said translating studies into the real world is tricky and schools will likely reflect the virus trends around them. “People are not going to be able to have a high enough rate of infection in the community to make that as much of a concern in the school setting,” Levine said.

We also learned the state is working on a guide to help address the mental well-being of students and staff. That should be out in a week.

VERMONT DISTRICTS CARRY ON WITH REOPENING PLANS

Castleton Elementary School in Bomoseen is one of the many schools trying to implement the state’s new guidelines, including in person-five classes days a week. Even though the changes are designed to allow more flexibility, the superintendent for the Slate Valley Unified School District says they plan to follow the reopening plans already in place.

One change to the school guidance announced by state officials Tuesday is minimizing the six-foot distance youngsters students must keep, to a range of three to six-feet.

"We're still going to prioritize the six-feet wherever we can," said Slate Valley Superintendent Brook Olsen-Farrell. "I think we're committed to that. It's just this does give us a little flexibility and breathing room, especially with the younger students."

Some classrooms at At Castelton Elementary have already been altered. The school bought new desks for some rooms to make sure students can keep their distance. Olsen-Farrell still stands by that purchase, saying it was a wise investment in the safety of the students.

“Normally, for first graders we would have tables where three or four kids would sit together, or you could have desks where two desks would be together right next to each other, and two more,” explained Kim Prehoda, Castleton’s principal. The band room is being used to store all the furniture deemed unfit for classrooms this year.

Another change -- schools will not be responsible for health check points. Families can now answer the health questions on their own.

”We’ll be making either booklets or cards for parents to complete the questions at home. If a student doesn’t arrive with the questions completed, then we’ll do them here in person,” Brook Olsen-Farrell said.

During a typical school year, buses would usually drop students off and all students would go inside. But this year students will be split up by grade levels and use three separate doors. Before each student can enter through their designated door, a staff member will come out in full PPE and take each students' temperatures.

Still, not everyone thinks going back to school is a good idea. Elementary students Riley and Daniel Brown of Proctor says their family is lucky enough to have the option to choose remote learning. "We've kind of been deciding all long that we're going to go remote learning anyway," Brown said.

Reporter Olivia Lyons: What do you think? Would you want to go to school with a mask on and all that stuff?

Riley Brown: No, not really. I wouldn't really want to wear a mask to school.

In a statement Tuesday Vermont-NEA’s president Don Tinney said union membership has become increasingly frustrated with the “inconsistent and seemingly changing ‘guidance’ from the administration.” The union says it wants students back in classrooms and learning in-person, but worries without consistent guidance that jeopardizes the health and safety of everyone. They say without a statewide approach, plans have largely been left to local districts.

FALL SPORTS GUIDANCE

The Vermont Principals’ Association provided further information about fall sports. Schools will be able to begin practices on September 8 when schools open. Facial coverings will be mandated for all players, staff, and spectators, except for cross-country running. They will have staggered start times.

HEALTH UPDATE

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says there's some positive news in treatment for the virus and that the state continues to stockpile the drug Remdesivir, which is helping people who are really sick. He also says the corticosteroid dexamethasone is proving somewhat effective too. Another experimental drug being used in Vermont also seems to be helping COVID patients with chronic illnesses as well, he says.

As of Tuesday, Vermont health officials reported 1,472 coronavirus cases in the state and 58 deaths. A total of 103,957 tests have been conducted, 964 travelers are being monitored, 6,199 have completed monitoring and 1,295 have recovered.

PRIMARY DAY POLITICS

When asked about continuing to holding a press conference on primary day, the governor said it’s appropriate -- to stay focused on the pandemic and to stick with his press conference schedule.

WCAX asked Middlebury College political professor Matt Dickinson his thoughts about the governor holding a press conference on the same day Vermonters are voting.

“He essentially is trying to portray himself as somebody who’s got more important things to do than run for office. He’s trying to stay above partisan politics by portraying himself as somebody dealing with a crisis. But of course that helps him in terms of the electoral impact as well,” said Dickinson.

There are 11 candidates running Tuesday, trying to get their party’s nomination for Vermont governor.

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