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Gov. Scott: ‘Our kids are not OK’

Published: Feb. 26, 2021 at 6:53 AM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont Governor Phil Scott and his team Friday said reopening schools and addressing students’ mental health issues exposed during the pandemic must be a top priority in the coming months.

Nearly a year after Governor Phil Scott shut down in-person learning, about 30 percent of schools are now fully in-person, with about half going hybrid and 20% still fully remote. State education officials announced Friday they are launching a new education recovery plan to get a majority of kids learning in-person permanently.

“I’ve seen, as my kids have kind of followed the progression of going from partial hybrid to four days in school, I think it’s been really, really good for them,” said Cara Crowther of St. George.

As both a parent to Williston Central third-grader, Poppy, and a teacher in Essex, Crowther says she knows even the best of remote learning experiences can’t compare to the value of in-person education. “They have more interactions day-to-day, and so it’s just a more normal experience for kids,” she said.

State officials say those interactions are key to a kid’s social and emotional well-being. But many still rarely see the inside of a classroom. Only 30% of students have full in-person learning. “Our kids are not okay, and I know that’s not acceptable to any of us. In fact, many kids are really struggling,” said Gov. Phil Scott.

Education Secretary Dan French laid out a plan for getting more kids in the classroom. “We are calling this next phase recovery, which is a term better known in emergency management. Although this public health emergency is not over, we need to act now to prevent an educational emergency from occurring,” French said.

Each school district will be required to establish a recovery team. By June 1st, those teams must have developed a strategy to tackle mental health, student engagement, and academic success. “I think it’s really important districts do that assessment of their conditions before we decide on what the solutions will be,” French said.

Though nothing is set in stone, French says he suspects districts will use the summer to meet the needs of students in those three focus areas. That could look like a more involved summer camp or summer school, or even an extension of the school year.

In the meantime, officials are encouraging schools make the transition to full in-person operations immediately. “We have an opportunity and a responsibility to do more right now,” French said.

They say since COVID conditions are improving in our communities, social distancing requirements are flexible. Plus, as Vermont’s vaccine allocation increases, officials indicate they may open registration to the state’s 30,000 teachers and child care workers.

“I would probably get one if they were offered to us, but I’m also okay with just waiting until my age range,” Crowther said.

MENTAL HEALTH EXPERTS SAY GETTING KIDS BACK TO SCHOOL IS KEY

Vermont education and mental health officials Friday underscored their belief that Vermont kids are not all right.

“Many are cut off, isolated, and lonely,” said Holly Morehouse with the group Vermont Afterschool.

“The cost of not getting them back in school are truly devastating,” said Mental Health Commissioner Sarah Squirrell. She pointed to a study that shows anxiety and stress on the rise for students. “Pediatricians across the state are reporting increased demand and mental health needs.”

They say the ongoing pandemic -- which has dragged on for nearly a year -- is taking a serious toll on the mental health of Vermont’s children and young adults. “A year to us adults is very different than a year to someone who is 12, 14, or 16,” Morehouse said. “This is a year they will not get back.”

The study found that depression and anxiety increased significantly in the fall of 2020 compared to 2019 among youth ages 12 to 17. Young adults 18 to 25 showed similar trends. About 70% of youth reported the pandemic made their mental health worse. Mental health surveys in schools found 59% of children said they lacked a community connection and 48% lacked optimism. In addition, the number of youth ending up in the emergency department for mental health concerns went up too.

“This is a really difficult time, no doubt,” said Dr. David Rettew, a child psychiatrist with UVM. He, like others in his field, is seeing the demand for child mental health care climb. “We’re seeing it on all levels. Our waitlist is going up. We’re hearing about kids being stuck in emergency rooms for long periods of time and high demand for all levels of mental health services, from mental health treatment and psychotherapy all the way up to needing hospitalization,” he said.

Mood, anxiety, and aggression are all problems he’s seeing. “There’s a sense that the intensity of this and the acuity of these problems are all going up. And more and more people, some of whom have never utilized mental health services in their life, are now needing it rather urgently,” Rettew said

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: Is it a concern when you start seeing a lot of new people entering the mental health system?

Dr. David Rettew: Yeah, it is. I think that’s a bit of a barometer. I think it suggests that the situation and that the environment is one that’s really stressful and creating some problems of its own.

VACCINATION UPDATE

Walgreens’ on Thursday had a bumpy rollout to its vaccination appointments allowing people 65-plus to register. The governor says the pharmacy receives its vaccine directly from federal officials and there was a limited 4,300 dose supply, so that may have filled up. The state and Kinney Drugs -- which falls under the state program -- will start taking appointments for the 65-plus age group on Monday morning.

State officials are planning to discuss the next phase of the vaccine rollout -- those with health conditions -- on Tuesday.

PRISON OUTBREAKS

More than 20 inmates and one staffer are infected with COVID-19 at the prison in Newport. That facility is in lockdown. There are six staffers with covid and 30 inmates systemwide.

As of Friday, Vermont health officials reported 121 new coronavirus cases for a total of 14,963. There have been a total of 204 deaths. The state’s percent positive seven-day average is 1.5%. A total of 328,832 people have been tested, and 12,286 have recovered.

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