By Peter D’Auria/VTDigger and Polly Mikula
When Vermont Gov. Phil Scott announced that the state would no longer recommend that students wear masks in schools after March 14, a variety of responses flooded through school districts and communities.
Among about 50 superintendents, more than a dozen said their districts and supervisory unions have already made masking optional, or had already planned to do so.
“I feel good about (March) 14th,” said David Young, superintendent of the South Burlington School District, which plans to lift its mandate by that date. “I think the important piece here is, it’s mask-optional, right? We aren’t telling people they can’t wear a mask.”
School in Barre and St. Johnsbury districts had already announced plans to make masks optional on March 7.
Those school districts that were more wary of the governor’s guidance, took more time to decided whether to follow the recommendations immediately.
Brian Hill, interim superintendent of the Mill River Union school district, expressed some reservations about the new guidance.
“We need (to) take steps to move from pandemic to endemic, and the numbers suggest that the timing for one of those steps is near — but it is hard to not be conflicted about that timing and if it is the right step when experts are conflicted,” Hill wrote in an email. “We’re trying to take it all in stride and help all of our folks feel valued, no matter which side of the masking debate they lean toward.”
Windsor Central Superintendent Sherry Sousa announced that the district’s elementary schools would move to voluntary mask wearing on Monday, April 4. Woodstock Middle School and High School moved to voluntary on Feb. 28 as they had hit the prior 80% vaccination threshold.
“I feel that I also need to hear my families who are fearful of the loss of this Covid response strategy. Whether they have young children at home or vulnerable family members, there is much anxiety around this decision,” she wrote in a letter to district families. “Mask wearing at all WCSU schools will be voluntary on April 4. We will then trade one strategy for another — mask wearing for fresh air. By early April, we can open our windows and be outside more. Waiting until that date also provides families with the time they need to make the shift if they wish, prepare their child(ren) for voluntary mask wearing, and allows one week prior to vacation for this new reality,” Sousa wrote. April break at WCSD is April 11-15.
“If at any time, our district is faced with high case counts and the department of health recommends a return to mask wearing, then I will put the mask mandate back into place,” Sousa added. “We will continue to foster an inclusive environment for all students and staff so that regardless of the decision to wear a face mask or not, all will feel accepted,” she assured parents.
The state’s new guidance comes two weeks after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosened its recommendations for masking indoors. The federal agency recommends that masks be worn indoors (including in schools) only in counties assessed at “high” risk based on hospital numbers, capacity and cases.
Vermont, however, is recommending that masks be made optional statewide — including all counties regardless of CDC assessment and schools. As of March 10, the CDC had assessed only Rutland County (out of Vermont’s 14 counties total) as “high” risks.
The state is following a nationwide trend of lifting mask mandates in schools — a process that has drawn criticism from some public health experts, who see the trend as politically motivated and unscientific.
“Data, not dates or politics, should guide Vermont’s school Covid-19 policy choices,” Anne Sosin, a policy fellow of health equity at Dartmouth College, wrote on Twitter after the announcement.
Agency of Education spokesperson Ted Fisher countered, “Conditions have reached the point where special protections in schools are no longer needed, and there is a lot of interest in ending mandates on things like masking, which have posed challenges for some students during the pandemic,” he said.