Gov. Phil Scott and other state officials defended their controversial and “abrupt” shift in school policy for combatting Covid-19 in the governor’s weekly press conference on Tuesday, Jan. 11.
As case numbers have hit record numbers with the omicron variant, Agency of Education Sec. Dan French sent school administrators a letter on Friday, Jan. 7, recommending schools stop contract tracing and stop PCR tests in favor of take-home rapid tests.
Under the changes, if a student tests positive, all students in the class will be notified. Vaccinated kids who are close contacts can still go to school without a test but any unvaccinated staff or students who are close contacts will be offered free at-home kits containing five rapid antigen tests. Close contacts can continue going to school if they have a negative test result each of the five days. But no verification is required. If symptomatic, students and staff are instructed to stay home.
Many educators and parents have been critical of the agency’s decision. House Speaker Jill Krowinski called the decision “alarming” on Twitter.
But Scott doubled down on Tuesday and said claims on social media that the state was not testing anymore was untrue.
“It’s unfortunate they weighed in before having all the facts,” Scott said. “Omicron makes this shift essential to supporting school operations. It’s clear that cases will continue to increase for a while.”
Scott acknowledged the shift was quick, but said it was based on data and science.
“Nothing about this pandemic has been textbook,” Scott said. “Nothing we were doing before made sense (to combat omicron).”
French, the education secretary, also admitted the shift was “abrupt” in the press conference and said his email to educators could have explained the new policies better.
“Omicron is forcing us to move quicker than we otherwise would have wanted,” French said.
Dr. Mark Levine, the commissioner of health, said the new school policies are designed to lessen the burden on school staff and shift the state’s strategy from managing a pandemic to managing an endemic.
“PCR is too slow to respond to this new variant in this setting,” Levine said, explaining the rapid tests will be “more responsive.”
However, Levine said that schools can continue PCR surveilance testing if they so choose.
The new policies also shift the burden of testing from school staff to parents.
Levine said the state wants to preserve in-person education and contact tracing was becoming too difficult to manage with the surge in cases.
“We need to move faster to counter this variant,” Levine said. “I know what a difficult time this is — probably the most disruptive month we will have endured. We’re navigating yet another phase of this pandemic.”
Levine said many people will get omicron and for some, it’s not a question of if, but when.
“That doesn’t mean you’re going to become deathly ill,” said Levine, as he emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated. Levine said there will likely be impacts on the workforce, but said there would be waves of the virus that would hopefully not impact businesses all at once.
Levine also recommended wearing two masks or “high quality” N95 or KN95 masks.
“Please don’t rely on a single ply cloth mask,” he said.
Rebecca Bell, a pediatric critical care doctor at UVM’s Children’s Hospital, acknowledged it had been a challenging two weeks. Bell echoed other officials, saying the new policies will allow the state to manage the virus “without letting it break us.”
Bell said families with young children should be “prepared for disruption.”
“There is fear in the unknown,” Bell said.
Testing only the unvaccinated
In the case a student or staff member tests positive for Covid-19, schools would inform parents whose children share a class with the Covid-positive case.
Then families of unvaccinated classmates would be advised to pick up rapid Covid-19 tests at the school and conduct five days of daily testing at home. Unvaccinated staff members who are identified as contacts would follow the same procedures.
Vaccinated students and staff will be given the option to take home rapid tests but are not required to do so. Vaccinated students and staff can continue to attend school without testing or quarantining.
The effective Test to Stay program will also transfer from being school-based to being home based — an honor system.
State officials encourage parents to report positive Covid-19 case information from rapid tests administered in private homes at healthvermont.gov/reportresults. Many expect that reporting to fall short.