Vermont officials detail basic model for returning to school

Published: Aug. 17, 2021 at 8:20 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The first day of school for many Vermont districts is next week, but there’s still some planning to do. The delta variant’s latest spike has created more questions school districts are trying to answer in their planning.

There are three key rules teachers are pushing for before everyone returns to the classroom: masks, vaccines and people staying home when they’re sick.

“The delta variant has raised their levels of anxiety, and they are really concerned about protecting the health and safety of their students,” said Don Tinney, the president of the Vermont NEA.

The union and many doctors say masks will be key but they are not required in Vermont. Tinney says districts need to lean on the science again.

“The universal masking is what the medical experts are telling us is the most important thing,” he said.

“Universal masking -- and that will really significantly reduce the risk that children have to catching COVID at school,” said Dr. Leah Costello with Timberlane Pediatrics.

Since there is no state of emergency, Costello says it’s in the hands of the districts to decide.

“We can safely bring our kids back into school,” she said.

The other two important ways that districts can avoid a false start next week are vaccination and keeping sick kids at home.

About 67% of the 12-15 age category has at least one dose of the vaccine and 73.5% of the 16-17 age band has one. Clinics are aimed at getting more kids vaccinated.

Costello says even though the call to keep kids home can be complicated, including missed work for parents and missed learning for students, it’s an important rule to follow.

“Even if you think it’s just allergies, if they are sniffling, coughing, they need to stay home,” she said. “Employers are going to have to be understanding that parents are being put in an impossible situation right now.”

Staying home goes for educators, as well, and Tinney says those policies need to be nailed down at the local level.

“We have to make sure that the sick time and the COVID sick time is there to them, so it doesn’t cost them money to stay home and that goes for parents and teachers, as well,” he said.

And while there is unpredictability this year, there is less than last year and we are better equipped.

“We now have to take a step back and say, OK, we can’t keep that pace up, we have to keep a humane pace, we have to keep a close eye on the social-emotional well-being of our students and our staff,” Tinney said.

Tinney says following those safety rules will create the best environment for our kids.

“They want to be with their friends, they want to be with their teachers and we have to ensure that is a safe way to be,” he said.

Another critical piece for a safe return back to school is the school nurse. Many districts leaned on school nurses as their COVID specialists and Tinney says in many cases that worked. He says when students and educators return, we also need to understand trauma for all from the effects of last year will be present, and that should be addressed off the bat.

“Our students are resilient, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t experienced trauma through this. Our educators are resilient, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t experienced trauma through this. I think we have to acknowledge that this has been difficult, that this has been traumatic and we need to keep that in mind as we listen to the stories our students have to tell as we highlight their strengths, build upon their strengths as they get back into a routine of learning,” he said.

Tinney says they are eagerly awaiting the day that all children can be vaccinated ensuring even more safety in Vermont’s classroom. There is no set date for that, but Dr. Costello says the hope is this fall.

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