Educators, parents react to new school COVID guidance

Published: Jan. 8, 2022 at 7:36 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 8, 2022 at 7:56 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Driven by omicron and the post-holiday COVID surge, Vermont’s Agency of Education just dropped a policy shift that’ll change how schools contain the spread of the virus.

The new guidance will halt two key safety measures -- PCR surveillance testing and contact tracing.

A summary of the new rapid response testing program and a letter sent to school administrators Friday night directs: If a student tests positive, the school will inform the families of all children in that class. Vaccinated kids who are close contacts can still go to school, no test necessary. On the other hand, unvaccinated staff and students who are close contacts will be offered free at-home kits containing five rapid antigen tests. Those individuals can keep going to school if they present a negative result each of the five days. School nurses can test anyone in the school community who develops symptoms at school using rapid antigen or LAMP tests. Symptomatic students must stay home or be sent home.

Secretary Dan French writes the state’s current strategy is no longer useful. He says that’s because the highly-transmissible variant has been spreading too quickly, and PCR tests can’t keep up.

But many parents and educators disagree and say this is a bad decision.

“It’s been tricky as a parent and tricky as a teacher,” said Ann Berno Browning, who is both a Winooski Middle and High School teacher and a mother.

“We all know the importance of our kids being in school for a variety of reasons, but there are many parents, most parents, who are still worried about sending their kids to school,” said Berno Browning.

She adds omicron has already created chaos in our school system, stressing staff and state resources.

“It sort of gives me a piece of mind having the testing in school, and I know it gives teachers peace of mind,” said Caitlin Brower of Montpelier, the parent of a second grader.

Brower says she’s infuriated by the policy shift and argues abandoning contact tracing and PCR surveillance testing will only shift the heavy burden of containing the virus from schools to parents.

“I do feel like it’s going to disrupt a lot, and it’s a really bad idea,” said Brower.

CVU High School teacher librarian and parent of four children Christina Deeley says she doubts this new guidance will effectively keep kids in school.

“Of course we want to keep them open, but if we want to keep them open, we want to take it seriously. We need to upgrade surveillance testing, not cancel it. We need to hand out free KN95 masks to our students, faculty, and staff,” said Deeley.

Some parents also say they don’t trust all families to properly follow the protocols, putting those who abide by the rules at risk.

“We have taken a multi-layer approach to mitigate this virus, and it feels as if one of those layers has been removed,” said Don Tinney, the president of the Vermont National Education Association, the state’s teacher’s union.

The organization is slamming the decision as a “demoralizing blow to thousands of Vermonters who work in our schools, who attend our schools, and are parents of students in our schools.”

Tinney says educators just endured a ‘horrific’ week with high case counts and school closures, and the overwhelming feeling among members is frustration.

“We need to understand how the next step, what the new process will be, to make sure students and the educators who serve them are protected,” said Tinney.

Secretary French says the changes are being made with support from Vermont’s infectious disease experts.

So, we asked UVM Medical Center’s Dr. Tim Lahey for his opinion.

He writes to us in a statement: “The shift away from contact tracing, while I understand it could feel alarming to some, is just a pragmatic response to the reality of explosive spread of infection in the community. Whether the management plan enforced by that reality makes sense depends on details I hear we’ll learn next week. A few days of suspense is acceptable in a fast-moving situation as long as schools and parents get the info in time to know what to do.”

The Agency of Education says it’ll release more details on the program next week.

Meanwhile, Vermont House Speaker Jill Krowinski writes in a tweet that lawmakers are vowing to hear testimony on what she’s calling “an alarming decision.”


Abrupt End to Key Health and Safety Measures ‘Demoralizing Blow’ to Vermont’s Educators

Vermont-NEA Board of Directors slams state’s decision to abandon contact tracing and surveillance testing with vague promises of further guidance next week

MONTPELIER – In response to last night’s announcement that the state would abandon two key elements of mitigating the spread of COVID in our schools, the board of the state’s largest union today issued the following statement:

The secretary of education decided to commemorate one of the most chaotic weeks ever in Vermont schools by yet another Friday night announcement of yet another abrupt COVID policy shift. Yesterday’s announcement that schools must stop contact tracing and surveillance testing – with a promise of more guidance next week – is a demoralizing blow to the thousands of Vermonters who work in our schools, who attend our schools, and are parents of students in our schools.

In one week, we saw the cumulative effect of inconsistent, ever-changing, and confusing guidance as schools struggle to keep ahead of a virus that doesn’t wait for a response. Schools closed. Parents struggled. Educators were flat out exhausted – and vulnerable in the face of rapidly rising case counts.

Contact tracing and surveillance testing were meant to give local administrators the information they needed to make sound decisions on how safe their schools were. The abrupt end to these measures – with a promise of something “better” – has us feeling like Vermont’s officials are putting educators, administrators, and parents at greater and greater risk.

Vermont’s educators are already doing everything in their power to ensure an in-school education for Vermont’s students. They are doing this despite grave misgivings of their personal safety, and despite anger and frustration at the abrupt and, seemingly at times, tone deaf shifts in safety guidance.

We should make sure that all schools are equipped the tools – testing and otherwise – needed to mitigate the further spread of this virus.

We had been assured that the multi-layered approach to COVID safety in our schools would give us, our students, and our communities the best shot at safety. Since the school year began, however, we’ve seen the gradual shifting of school health and safety onto the backs of parents and front-line educators. And by announcing the end of contact tracing and surveillance testing, the state has us bewildered in stripping away two important layers of safety with only vague assurances of something better. This is unacceptable.

The Vermont-NEA Board of Directors believes that the health and safety of our members – and the students they teach – must come first. We will be letting the governor, the education secretary, and local school administrators know that Vermont’s school employees – who have been among the front-line heroes of this pandemic – deserve better than late-night policy shifts that will continue to sow chaos in our schools.

Vermont’s educators have been there for Vermont throughout the pandemic. It’s long past time for Vermont’s leaders to be there for our educators.

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