Op - Ed, Opinion

Leadership can keep schools safe, open

Vaccination mandates and ‘test to attend’ programs needed now

By Jim Haff

Editor’s note: Jim Haff is the Killington representative in the Windsor Central School District and Killington Select Board member. This commentary was written as an open letter to Vermont’s elected leaders on Jan. 10.

You are not protecting our children.

Over the holidays cases in kids ages 0-9 nearly doubled from the week prior and cases in kids ages 10-19 more than doubled, according to a report by WCAX.

The guidelines and tools offered to protect K-12 students are lackadaisical at best, and it’s even worse for those age 5 and under who are not able to be vaccinated and have also been excluded from state testing programs.

Now, after a chaotic first week of school after winter break with Covid case numbers soaring, forcing some schools to close, the state has announced it’ll be removing the few mitigation programs that were in place!

Contact tracing is to be stopped, as is surveillance testing. Rapid tests will only be given to those who are unvaccinated once they’ve been identified as a close contact and administration of those tests left to parents. No proof of a negative result required.

Do we really think the parents who refuse to even wear masks are going to properly test their kids and then isolate as required? This can’t be the state’s best response to protecting our students and keeping schools open in the worst surge of Covid we’ve experienced!

We can do better. Much, much better.

Vaccinate

The state must go back to “following the science,” as the governor did in the first half of the pandemic, and take actions accordingly.

First, we know that many vaccinated people are getting and spreading Covid, so it’s irrational to now exclude this group from school testing programs. We also know that frequent and proactive testing will catch cases soonest and can prevent days or even weeks of further spread.

Second, the definition of “vaccination” must be changed to mean “boosted once eligible.” We now know that the efficacy of the original vaccine decreases to about 30% after six months and continues to wane, so without a booster you’re not protected and you’re not protecting others.

Third, mandates work and are used all the time to keep communities safe. Six vaccinations are currently required to attend pre-K-12 public schools in Vermont —Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis (DTaP), Poliovirus (Polio) (IPV), Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR), Varicella (Chicken pox), Tetanus, Diphtheria, Pertussis (Tdap), Meningococcal ACWY (MCV4) — these are required even though there is not an eminent threat of infection, like there is currently with Covid. Similarly mandates about smoking also protect public health. No longer can you light up in a restaurant, airplane, etc.

Simply put: You don’t have the right to put others’ health in jeopardy.

The state knows mandating Covid vaccines works to protect students. It’s why it did it for its public universities and state colleges. In fact, Castleton University, part of the Vermont State College system, now requires all students to have boosters to qualify as “vaccinated” AND required and facilitated PCR testing for all students prior to the beginning of classes this spring semester.

So why not treat all public school students equally regardless of age? Why is there no requirement for vaccination in our public elementary, middle and high schools?

Gov. Phil Scott blames the 5% of Vermonters who remain unvaccinated for the current Covid surge. Well, it seems our student population is partially to blame, making up a significant portion of that group. Take the current vaccination rates in my school district’s elementary schools (Windsor Central):

  • Woodstock Elementary: 35.7%
  • Killington Elementary: 36%
  • Barnard Academy: 41%
  • Prosper Valley: 41%
  • Reading Elementary: 50%

Of the 568 elementary students in the district (pre-K-6), 100 are in pre-K (which are not included in the above vaccination percentage — and would make them even lower if included).

The Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine was approved for kids ages 5-11 in October 2021 and was authorized for kids ages 12-15 in May 2021 — plenty of time for all who want it to be vaccinated by now. But the uptake has lagged.

So the state thinks handing over responsibility for public health to parents of these kids — who have chosen not to vaccinate their students — is the best way to detect Covid, mitigate exposure and spread?

At Woodstock Middle School/High School the vaccination rate is around 80%, which is better, except that now only 20% of the the students will be eligible for any sort of testing!

The state’s plan is one of willful ignorance.

It’s reckless.

It’s abandonment.

If we want to see higher vaccination rates so that schools can remain open with less disruptions for students, teachers and parents, a mandate will get us there fast! It’s logical and equitable to make vaccination requirements apply equally to all public school students Kindergarten through college (and pre-K, once eligible).

Ask yourself: how is it justified not to provide the same expectation for all Vermont students?

But Scott stops short of action, despite making vaccinations his main public health strategy against Covid.

It begs the question: do we actually want to find cases and decrease the spread of Covid in schools?

If we did, actions would certainly look different!

Test to Attend

In addition to mandating vaccinations, the state should be doubling down on testing. Instead of removing current testing programs, the state should have announced an additional “Test to Attend” program where all students and staff (vaccinated and unvaccinated) had to show a negative rapid test result before attending class daily. If positive, they’d be given a PCR test to confirm and sent home to isolate for five days, per new state guidelines. Knowing that students, teachers and staff were not currently contagious each day would be a huge relief for all and go a long way to preventing unnecessary infection.

Ensuring a student’s health at public school is not something that should be left to an honor system.

I’m sick of hearing what can’t be done. I’m sick of hearing excuses. Step up and start thinking about how it can be done! Think outside the box, if necessary, like we teach our students to do. If teachers and administrators are overwhelmed by the testing then call in for back up: local police, fire departments, EMS personnel, nurses, trained parents could help.

Figure out what will keep our students safe and schools open, then find a way to do it! That’s leadership.

It’s been nearly two years that we’ve been navigating Covid-19. We know very well that vaccination (for those eligible) coupled with frequent testing (for all) helps to stop the spread of Covid-19. We no longer have to let the virus circulate in the classroom infecting students unnecessarily until someone gets sick enough to be tested, then wait days to receive their results. It’s not 2020, it’s 2022 and we have learned a lot. Let’s put that knowledge to use!

If we want life to go back to normal (and we all do) we have to get serious and use all the tools we have at our disposal.

With record high Covid cases, and rising hospitalizations and deaths, the time to act has never been more urgent!

Mandating vaccinations (including boosters) to attend all public schools and mandating regular testings for all students (vaccinated and unvaccinated as both can spread Covid) are tools we know work. They significantly minimize infection rates and the worst effects of Covid —which include not only severe illness but also the social, emotional and economic costs of missing school or work. Our hospitals are stressed and so is our economy.

It’s up to our elected leaders to do as much as each of them can to protect Vermonters, our schools and our economy from further damage. Or Covid will do the job itself — schools and businesses will continue to close due to illness and lack of staffing.

You have an opportunity to create a model not only for future outbreaks of Covid but for other diseases we’re likely to face in our lifetime. Will you? Or will you let political calculations of “popularity” or apathy render you immobile?

Stop with the excuses, you can and must do more — and soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Mountain Times Newsletter

Sign up below to receive the weekly newsletter, which also includes top trending stories and what all the locals are talking about!