By Hannah Laga Abram
Vermont students will be able to return to fully in-person instruction when the school year begins this fall, with only a few state health recommendations in place, Gov. Phil Scott announced at a Tuesday press conference.
With Covid-19 cases on the rise nationwide, including in Vermont, the CDC last week recommended that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, return to wearing masks indoors. Tuesday’s conference made clear that Vermont will not further these recommendations.
“We have to understand that the CDC releases guidelines for the whole country, from one extreme to the other…it is important that we evaluate them in the specific context of Vermont,” Scott said.
Vermont has seen 282 new Covid-19 cases in the past week, the majority in unvaccinated individuals. Windsor County has recorded 27 cases in the past 14 days; Rutland County has recorded 36.
Of the 52 recent cases that have been genome sequenced, 48 were identified as the Delta strain of the virus, which now accounts for over half of Covid cases nationwide, Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said. The Delta variant is twice as contagious as other strains of the virus and can, in certain cases, infect vaccinated individuals — though these breakthrough cases are few and far between and rarely lead to hospitalization or death. With 84.1% of the state’s eligible population vaccinated, “What we are seeing now is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said.
But data predicts that the rise in cases will slow and fall again in the next four to five weeks, an encouraging prospect for the start of the school year, Levine said.
“We anticipated fall would be a full return to in-person learning and I’m pleased to say we will be able to start the school year as predicted,” Secretary of Education Daniel French said.
The new school and childcare advisories that Commissioner Levine and Secretary French will release in the coming week will recommend that schools return to fully in-person instruction, with precautions in place.
Recommendations for the fall include paying extra attention to the age-old rule: Stay home when you’re sick. In addition, all students and staff will be required to wear masks for the first few weeks of the school year, as everyone re-adjusts to in-person instruction, though no distancing protocols will be in place.
After the first few weeks, the state suggests following a process similar to the state-wide lead up to removing restrictions — once 80% of eligible students at a school have received at least one dose of the vaccine, masks will only be required for unvaccinated students and staff. No Covid-19 vaccines have been approved for use in children younger than 12.
Voluntary testing and contact tracing will continue to be in place throughout the school year. Masks will be required on school buses, per national guidelines.
“We’ve tied the change to student vaccination rate as opposed to staff vaccination rate on purpose,” French said, adding that he expects that a high percentage of school staff members are already vaccinated — though none will be required by the state to file their vaccination information with their schools.
“The game changer this year are vaccinations,” French said.
Currently, an average 68% of Vermonters ages 12-18 are vaccinated. School-based clinics are set to open once the school year begins. These will focus on getting the eligible students vaccinated but will be open to everyone.
Students younger than 12 are recommended to continue wearing masks indoors, until an alternate vaccine becomes available.
Regardless, “there are going to be cases in schools, just like in the rest of society,” Levine said.
It will be up to school boards and district superintendents to follow or add to these recommendations.
French and Levine plan to follow up with more advisories throughout the fall, but “they will be two pages long instead of last year’s 40 pages,” French laughed during the press conference.
“The reality is that this pandemic continues to throw new challenges at us…we can handle this,” Levine said.