State News

Schools can no longer ask about gatherings, state says

By Lola Duffort/VTDigger

Schools cannot ask students or parents about multihousehold gatherings, the Agency of Education announced just before Christmas, entirely reversing the state’s prior policy encouraging schools to do so.

Gov. Phil Scott announced Tuesday, Dec. 22, he would slightly loosen prohibitions on multihousehold events over the holiday week, allowing Vermonters to gather with one trusted household outside their own between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2.

But the state’s new education guidance does not adjust the question schools should ask, or instruct schools to temporarily suspend its inquiries. Instead, it rescinds earlier guidance outright.

“Schools may no longer include a question on multihousehold social gatherings in their daily health check questionnaires,” reads a three-line memo issued this week.

On Thursday, Education Secretary Dan French called the prior directive “arguably probably the most challenging thing we’ve asked [schools] to do,” and noted coronavirus case counts had leveled off from the early November surge, when the question was originally posed.

“We felt comfortable saying this guidance was no longer necessary,” French said during the governor’s twice-weekly press conference.

Scott added that contact tracers are no longer seeing as many cases linked to social gatherings as before, which indicated that the second shutdown had persuaded residents to substantially change their behavior. “I think Vermonters have gotten the message,” Scott said.

The new guidance gets schools out of the business of enforcing the governor’s (currently partial) ban on multihousehold socialization, a change some administrators will welcome. But it is equally likely that it will alarm many educators, who are worried people will let their guard down and bring an onslaught of cases into schools after Christmas and New Year’s.
Darren Allen, a spokesperson for the VT-NEA, said the union hadn’t known about the change ahead of time, but it appears to be in line with the governor’s general lockdown relaxation.

“We continue to hope that everyone — families, staff and the community — continue to put the safety of themselves and other Vermonters first,” Allen said.

As part of their new roster of pandemic-era safety protocols, schools survey students or families daily about whether children are symptomatic or have recently traveled out of state before allowing them to attend school in-person. (In many districts, parents in the morning simply click through a quick questionnaire at home on their computer or phone.)

When he imposed a second lockdown in November amid a record-breaking surge of Covid-19 cases, Scott also encouraged schools to begin including a question about multihousehold gatherings in their daily health check.

The move proved deeply controversial, and put local education leaders in a difficult spot. Some administrators appreciated the clarity about whether they were within their rights to send students home if their families had attended events in violation of the governor’s orders. But others felt deeply uncomfortable prying into what they thought were private matters. The policy was also seized upon in the national right-wing media, where commentators suggested teachers would interrogate children and demand they spy on their parents.

Jeanné Collins, superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, did not ask students but instead put the question to parents, and gave them some latitude as to how they wanted to interpret the governor’s directive.

She thinks simply asking the question raised awareness about the gathering ban, and got many to reconsider their plans. “I am concerned that I can no longer ask it because I think my staff will be quite concerned about safety,” she wrote in an email.

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