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Vt. education officials loosen restrictions; inter-school sports to begin Saturday

Published: Sep. 22, 2020 at 8:06 AM EDT|Updated: Sep. 22, 2020 at 5:47 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont education officials say schools will be able to move into phase three of reopening plans by Saturday, including giving schools more flexibility in grouping students, allowing schools to use gyms and cafeterias, and opening sports competitions between schools.

After two weeks of classes with only four reported cases of COVID connected to schools, state officials are loosening restrictions on how schools operate. Starting Saturday, all schools move to what the state calls step three of reopening. And that will mean high school athletes can move from just practicing to playing competitive games with other schools.

Districts will also have more freedom to use gyms and cafeterias and no longer have to keep students grouped together throughout the school day.

Though the state is moving to step three, Education Secretary Dan French says it’s still up to individual districts to roll out these changes.

“Under step two, schools are required to keep the same groups of students together whenever feasible -- what we call the pod model. Under step three, schools have more flexibility in grouping students,” he said.

The change in step level does not address the issue of how many days schools offer in-person learning, but the state is still encouraging districts to move in that direction. One of the state’s largest districts -- Essex-Westford -- announced Tuesday it plans to go to all in-person learning for K-5 students.

HEALTH UPDATE

There have been 2,100 tests done on college campuses since Friday with just one new positive. The total of positive COID tests since colleges reopened stands at 43 cases according to the state’s college COVID dashboard.

The U.S. is expected to cross a grim milestone Tuesday of 200,000 COVID deaths, but the health commissioner says Vermont’s death toll remains at 58, as it has for the past 56 days. As of Tuesday, Vermont health officials reported a total of 1,721 coronavirus cases. A total of 157,341 tests have been conducted, 431 travelers are being monitored, 8,683 have completed monitoring and 1,557 have recovered.

VACCINE TIMETABLE FOR VERMONT

Vermont’s top health official warned residents Tuesday that even if a vaccine is approved this year, lifestyle changes to mitigate COVID-19 risk will need to continue through next year.

Dr. Levine said there’s been a shift in messaging on the national level about the vaccine. “The subtlety in the messaging is the lifestyle we’re becoming accustomed to today and all the things we’re doing today actually will continue on when a vaccine arrives,” Levine said.

He says relying on herd immunity won’t be enough and he says if one or two vaccine candidates are approved this fall, who gets them first will be determined by the CDC’s advisory panel on immunizations, but it will likely be high-risk individuals. He says it likely won’t be until early to mid-next-year before production has ramped up enough to vaccinate the wider population.

THE POLITICIZATION OF CDC

Levine also addressed what he called a “public relations fiasco” -- a press release from the CDC about airborne transmission that was published online and later unpublished, acknowledging that COVID is transmitted by aerosol mists in addition to larger respiratory droplets.

Dr. Levine says he still believes the CDC is one of the leading health organizations in the world, but he said the episode showed clear political overtones. He says the agency’s ability to do its job is being interfered with. “I think it’s a shame that it’s been called out the way it’s been called out, but that’s just the reality in front of us,” he said.

Levine says the right information is coming out, just not in as timely of a fashion as it could. He reiterated his department here will be guided by the science and says Vermont and other states won’t hesitate to speak up if they feel the CDC’s guidance isn’t doing enough.

TRAVEL MAP

Starting Tuesday, Vermont’s travel map will be updated each Tuesday instead of Friday. The map displays the counties from which travelers to Vermont may need to quarantine or can travel freely. DFR Commissioner Mike Pieciak says the state is predicting a slight increase in numbers in three counties, including Orleans County. He says they are seeing increases in COVID cases across the Northeast region, especially in Quebec, so the safe-travel map basically stayed the same.

The governor also clarified his latest turn of the spigot after he said some people have been confused by it. Bar and restaurant capacity remains at 50 percent and his move last week simply allowed seating at the bar counter.

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