VT education officials say masking in schools may be needed to protect vulnerable students
Vaccinations have gone a long way toward protecting most Vermonters from ending up in the hospital or dying as a result of getting COVID-19, but for medically vulnerable kids, the threat of getting seriously sick from COVID is still very real.
The Vermont Agency of Education on Thursday issued new guidance to schools for how to protect those students. And Secretary of Education Dan French says “masking or other mitigation measures” may be necessary accommodations for medically vulnerable children.
Vermont Public’s Mary Engisch talked with reporter Peter Hirschfeld about what this new guidance could mean for schools and students. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Engisch: The new school year is already underway. And I imagine most districts started putting together their COVID plans weeks or even months ago. What prompted the Agency of Education to release this guidance now?
Peter Hirschfeld: There is a small but formidable group of parents, public health officials and advocates who have been sounding the alarm for months now about the COVID environment in schools for medically vulnerable kids.
They’re hearing messaging from people like Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine, who’ve been saying that we’ve moved past the pandemic, and are now in an endemic. We’ve seen schools do away with mask mandates, and we know how badly most of us want to just get back to normal.
But some people say this post-pandemic framing has really isolated an exposed immunocompromised people and other folks who are high risk of getting seriously sick from COVID.
Dr. Melissa Houser is a primary care physician in Montpelier who treats a lot of patients with underlying conditions that make COVID a dangerous thing for them. And she says for school-aged kids it’s been especially challenging.
“And I think that if we value, as a community, equity — like who gets to show up — and inclusion — who feels like they belong — thinking about the science of COVID risk mitigation is an important part of that,” she said.
This guidance that was released by Education Secretary Dan French is a response to concerns from people like Dr. Houser. And to the extent that there’s any ambiguity among school administrators about what COVID mitigation measures ought to look like for medically vulnerable kids, state officials hope this clears some of that up as well.
So how does the guidance released by the Agency of Education this week respond to those concerns?
First of all, it highlights CDC guidance that was issued in March that addresses very specifically the issue of medically vulnerable kids. And that CDC guidance says that schools are required to make reasonable modifications and accommodations for medically vulnerable kids.
Ted Fisher is director of communications at the Agency of Education. And he says the new guidance tries to reinforce that schools have a legal obligation to provide a free and appropriate education to all students. And he says the guidance makes it clear that meeting that obligation may require accommodations for medically vulnerable kids for whom COVID poses a credible health threat.
The guidance says that when schools are presented with concerns related to a medically vulnerable student, then it falls to district officials, school nurses, teachers, parents, students and the student’s doctor to meet as a team and come up with an appropriate accommodation.
“There may be many different things based on what the individual student needs, but it could be things like masking or some of the other mitigation measures that we’re very familiar with as we’re in the third year of COVID-19," he said.
The guidance explicitly says that “schools may need to implement masking or other mitigation measures as a reasonable accommodation for students who are medically vulnerable.”
That’s something the Agency of Education hasn’t said to date. And there are some people today who are really pleased to see them articulate it now.
This guidance went out less than 24 hours ago, and I imagine superintendents are still digesting the news. But what are you hearing so far from the school officials that are going to have interpret and administer these new recommendations?
I talked to two superintendents today. And both said this guidance doesn’t really change the game for them in any meaningful way. Schools have been required to provide accommodations for kids with disabilities or special health needs for decades.
There’s a robust legal framework they use to do that. And Julie Regimbal, who’s the superintendent at Missisqoi Valley School District, says she and other district officials are already well-versed in that process.
“These are not processes that we invent," she said. "They’re processes that have been in place for a long time, and the most appropriate ones to weigh such difficult decisions.”
I get the sense that superintendents view this guidance as more of political maneuver than a public health necessity — something the agency is doing to quell its critics.
And they don’t expect that it’s going to substantively change the process used to determine what accommodations are appropriate, or the outcomes those processes yield.
Pete, you mentioned earlier that Education Secretary Dan French issued this guidance in response to concerns voiced by the parents of medically vulnerable kids. Does this new guidance satisfy those concerns?
Well they’re really happy to hear the agency say in no uncertain terms that if you have a medically vulnerable student, masking for all the students in that kid’s classroom could be an appropriate accommodation.
But they’re also saying the guidance is sort of anemic and lackluster. Anne Sosin is a public health researcher at Dartmouth College. She’s also a leading critic of the Scott administration’s approach to COVID mitigation in schools. And she characterized this latest guidance as the bare minimum of what the state could have done.
“We need leadership from the Agency of Education, as well as from schools, to issue robust guidance, as well as to put technical and political support behind its implementation. We shouldn’t be putting the onus of responsibility on the highest-risk members of our communities to secure even the most basic of protections right now," she said.
What Sosin and others are looking for is a more forceful and proactive effort by the Agency of Education and Department of Health to spell out for districts exactly what COVID accommodations ought to look like, and then a concerted effort to relay that message to key district officials.
They’re worried we’re going to end up with a case-by-case approach, where different districts end up making different decisions about what accommodations are or are not warranted.
They say that approach could create equity issues, where parents with the most time and resources and expertise are going to be able to negotiate the safest environment for their kids. And other kids are going to be forced to enter unsafe school environments, or possibly have to leave school altogether.
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