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Vt. school superintendents band together for statewide mask mandate

Published: Sep. 7, 2021 at 6:24 AM EDT|Updated: Sep. 7, 2021 at 2:31 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - A group of Vermont school officials on Tuesday called on Governor Phil Scott to require masks in schools while the COVID transmission rate remains high.

The educators say not requiring masks creates an unsafe environment for kids not yet eligible for vaccination and leaving it up to schools politicizes their decisions. “There is just simply no way that I will lift the mask guidance at this point in time,” said Montpelier Roxbury School District Superintendent Libby Bonesteel. She says she is using guidance from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics when deciding what’s best for her schools, not taking advice from Governor Scott’s administration. Bonesteel says masking requirements should not be left for each district to decide and that the governor should mandate masks for all students and school staff.

St. Johnsbury School Superintendent Brian Ricca agrees with her. “This approach has created some chaos and confusion in the educational community,” he said.

Ricca and Bonesteel say the state last year focused on the communities surrounding the schools, often emphasizing the schools are a direct reflection of their community. Now, Ricca worries about the impacts of no masking requirements outside of schools. “I feel a real visceral need to protect students who don’t even have a chance to vaccinate yet,” he said.

In a statement, Agency of Education officials said “the State of Vermont and the AOE will continue to make decisions based on the data. We are monitoring the conditions in Vermont very closely. We will continue to adjust our recommendations for schools as needed to keep students, staff, and their families safe and healthy.”

“It would be very helpful for the state just to put out more comprehensive guidance,” said Orange Southwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Layne Millington. He is currently requiring universal masking but that without backing from the governor’s office, the policy has become politically charged. He says when calling families regarding positive cases -- as schools are now required to do -- most work with him, but not all. “There are quite a few that will say -- excuse the language -- ‘There is no freakin’ way in hell that we agree with this,’ or that ‘we want to follow this,’” he said.

We asked state epidemiologist Patsy Kelso if the state was prepared to step in to help schools if families push back. “The bottom line is the conditions in Vermont with our case rates, our hospitalization rates, the difference in the case rate between fully vaccinated Vermonters and unvaccinated Vermonters -- the conditions just don’t warrant a statewide mandate for something like masks,” she said.

About 40% of Vermont cases are now among the vaccinated and 60% among the unvaccinated. But when it comes to hospitalizations, 72% percent are among the unvaccinated.

Kelso says the state has not determined a threshold to require masking again and that cases here are expected to plateau in the near future and then go down.

A spokesperson for Governor Scott said that on Wednesday, the governor and Education Secretary Daniel French will be discussing an update to the masking guidelines.

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