Vt. ed officials say school nurses will steer COVID policy this fall

Published: Aug. 11, 2022 at 5:04 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - As Vermont families prepare for the return to school, many will also need to factor in new COVID recommendations.

The Agency of Education Wednesday released its recommendations for the school year, which are now centered around the clinical decision-making of school nurses to determine if a student needs a COVID test. Testing is not required to attend school, but if a student or staff member does test positive, they are to follow isolation guidance from the Department of Health.

As Vermonters head back to school, COVID is at the forefront of many families’ minds. Some, like grandparent Sheila Barrie, are optimistic after the disruptions of the past two years. “It’s been really hard on the kids and I’m hoping all the new directives might make it a little easier on the children and for the people who work in the system,” Barrie said.

Others, like Flora Whitmore of Bakersfield, are less certain. She is immunocompromised and is concerned about the virus spreading. “It’s scary to be putting our kids’ health and my health and the health of my family in the hands of people who don’t know us. They’re following directions and that’s great but it’s still scary,” she said.

School nurses have been navigating the pandemic for two years and members of the Vermont State School Nurse’s Association say they’re ready for year three and the ability to do more decision-making. “That’s our job. We’re happy to get back to our clinical judgment, so it’s kind of nice to have it called out,” said Soph Hall, the nurse at Miller’s Run School in Sheffield.

Other nurses say the guidance is similar to how the year ended. They say they’ve spent the pandemic following rules from the state so it’s good to regain control and make decisions and have ample testing resources. “It puts us into the leadership role that we should be in as the health professional within our schools or across the district,” said Clayton Wetzel, the nurse at Waitsfield Elementary School.

Most schools in the state have full-time nurses, with some smaller schools having nurses that circulate between schools in the district. Both the nurses association and the teacher’s union say staffing remains a concern for many districts as the pandemic exacerbated existing staff shortages. That’s something the union predicts will happen again this year.

“One of the most important things we learned during the pandemic was to stay home when we’re sick. And so when our educators do need to stay home, we need to make sure that we have coverage for them in their positions,” said Vermont-NEA President Don Tinney.

Vermont Education Secretary Dan French says focusing on testing symptomatic individuals when nurses think it’s appropriate, lets students who are able, to continue learning and thereby minimizing pandemic interruptions. “Now we’re at that place where clearly, you know the risks from the virus have been diminished and the risk for kids not being in school, participating in the regular programs, socializing with their peers, and so forth -- those risks are front-and-center in our concern,” French said.

Other recommendations for this upcoming school year include sending home a student or staff member who is not well enough to be there, regardless of COVID.

Nurses are also in charge of deciding masking policy for the students who are being sent home due to any illness and COVID testing is not required for symptomatic students to return to school. They will be using antigen and lamp testing and can send them home as well.

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