On September 1, 2021

Lack of Covid-safe mandates questioned as schools reopen

Gov. Scott announced vaccine requirement for more state employees and expanded school surveillance testing

By Ethan Weinstein

Courtesy CDC and the VT Dept. of Health
Vermont continues to rank No. 1 according to the top metrics used by the CDC on its scorecard. This week Hawaii surpassed Vermont in one metric, however: percent of the eligible population with at least once dose of Covid-19 vaccine. Vermont is still No. 1 in percent fully vaccinated along with all other top metrics.

The Governor did not issue new guidance or restrictions in his weekly Tuesday press conference even as schools deal with Covid cases in their first week since opening.

Scott did, however, announce a vaccine mandate for state employees working at correctional facilities. This comes as 25 inmates at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport test positive for Covid, as of Aug. 30. That outbreak began with an infected, unvaccinated corrections employee.

But with the return to school on everyone’s minds, schools were the day’s focus. As school board members across the state and country take flak from parents angry about masking requirements, and other parents express frustration about limited and temporary mask requirements, mandates were central to the discussion. 

“Essentially, we’ve issued universal masking mandates,” said Gov. Scott in reference to his advisory that school start with 10 masked days, only later segueing away from masks if reaching the 80% vaccinated threshold. Currently, 75% of kids 12-17 have received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine.

While the Governor’s policy is not in fact a mandate, but rather advice, most school districts have mandated mask wearing based on that advice. The school in Canaan is currently the only one opting — legally — not to follow the state’s recommendation.

Courtesy VT Dept. of Health
Total Covid infections by week (Tuesday to Monday) continue to rise in the state reaching levels not seen since before April.

“Blame me [for masking rules], don’t blame the school board members,” Scott said. 

A recent Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union board meeting devolved into a shouting match about mask policy. And a Vermont superintendent, choosing to remain anonymous, has received a death threat over masks, VTDigger reported. 

New for the 2021-22 school year, the state will support voluntary surveillances testing for both staff and students. Thus far, 47 of 51 school districts have expressed interest in participating in surveillance testing. The state will do “regular reporting” of surveillance testing data, said Secretary of Education Daniel French. 

Despite these promising safety measures, there is also reason for pessimism in the immediate future. The state will not start publishing school case date until mid-September for an unspecified reason. Asked how many active cases there are in Vermont’s public schools, Sec. French did not know. For the next two weeks, any understanding of Delta’s spread in Vermont’s school will be largely anecdotal and piecemeal.

The higher education numbers look better. The state has vaccination data from 14 of Vermont’s 16 colleges, and 92.3% of students are fully vaccinated. 

When the Governor and his advisors opened up the floor for questions, masking remained center stage.

Courtesy of CDC, VT Dept. of Health
With 75% of kids ages 12 to 17 at least partially vaccinated, many high schools will likely remove their mask mandates.

Gov. Scott asserted again that neither he nor municipalities have the power to mandate masks indoors without a state of emergency. Issuing guidance, however, was welcomed and it has generally worked well in Vermont, he noted.

Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine cited “economic” and “mental health” concerns as two factors contributing to not reinstating an indoor mask mandate. The issue, he explained, is more complicated than simply public health. And people have the power to take the precautions they deem necessary.

“People are doing appropriate things in appropriate settings quite often,” said Levine, rhetorically distancing himself from anything resembling specificity. But when pressed, he did eventually recommend wearing mask indoors. 

While Gov. Scott has chosen for now not to issue any binding, school-related rulings, nothing is out of the question for the future. “In this situation, we think it’s best, especially for kids under 12, to be masked,” Scott said. 

Sec. French, also speaking on school guidance, added, “We won’t hesitate to enact further mitigations as necessary.”

Courtesy VT Dept. of Health
Charts shows the month and age of Vermonters who died of Covid-19 as of when the death took place, not when reported.

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