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Vermont schools welcome kids back to the classroom

Published: Aug. 23, 2021 at 8:12 AM EDT
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WINOOSKI, Vt. (WCAX) - It’s a big week for Vermont schools as many will start welcoming kids back five days a week. But COVID is still causing issues, with the seven-day positivity rate now at 3%.

Along with the usual push for masks, personal hygiene and social distancing, Winooski school leaders are really hammering home the message to stay home if you’re sick.

Plenty of work is being done outside the Winooski Schools complex and plenty of planning on the inside.

“In the full swing, preparing and getting ready for this school year and what that is going to look like,” said Elizabeth Parris, with the district. “Because of our experience last year, my colleague and I feel prepared for this year.”

Parris says keeping sick kids home is essential, no matter what illness is being presented.

“Runny noses, sore throat, headache, fever, cough, nausea, vomiting: you gotta stay home,” Parris said.

Vermont state and school leaders say they understand that has incredibly complicated implications surrounding child care and sick time.

They’re leaning on employers and parents to be understanding. That’s because they say schools are community centers, meaning protecting them should be a top priority.

“The first layer of mitigation is how to prevent COVID from entering schools to begin with,” said Dan French, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education.

French says allowing COVID to enter can have a major ripple effect.

Many districts are dealing with labor shortages, from teachers and special education educators to food service workers and bus drivers.

“It’s not just teachers. There are a lot of staff that are involved in the logistics of school, and I can tell you that the one person I did not look forward to calling in sick was the director of my food service program. Our student meal staff play such a critical role not just in education, but in nutrition, and there often aren’t subs for those folks,” said French.

If COVID gets in, kids may have to go home to learn remotely.

“The instability as a result of illness will put pressure on all of that, so it is going to be a challenging year to maintain that stability,” said French.

French says the state of emergency last year offered more flexibility for districts, but this year it isn’t in effect. That’s left districts to hash out remote teaching and learning for themselves.

“If there ends up being a positive in the class, then we would have to look at contact tracing and if that was going to require a shift for that classroom to remote learning for a week week and a half,” said Parris.

And while Parris says they have thought about it, the goal isn’t to have to use it. They still have COVID isolation rooms ready and will call a parent to pick up a student.

“I can assure you that my colleague and I will use our critical thinking skills and make the correct judgment. So, if you get a call from us, we deem it is necessary for your child to come home,” said Parris.

As a mom herself, she understands the hurdles but hopes the student won’t be there in the first place.

“I get it; I have a 5-year-old. They have runny noses and it is going to be challenging but it’s the right thing to do,” said Parris.

WCAX News talked with a principal down in Hartford as well and he says prior to COVID, often it was just standard to teach while you were sick, as well, because a teacher couldn’t miss a day of teaching content. He said COVID has changed that, as well. Teachers simply can’t be teaching if they experience any symptoms. That he says, could be a good thing, a good shift in culture in the future.

French says vaccination rates are key to keeping staff in school.

He says he estimates 90% of school staff in the state are vaccinated. He says that’s critical because those vaccinated are presenting much more mild illness with the delta variant, meaning less time out of school hurting the system.

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