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Scott Administration Recommends Schools Be In-Person, Masks Required Until Student Vax Rate Hits 80%

A fleet of yellow school buses.
Nina Keck
VPR File
The Scott administration today announced new measures for students and staff returning to Vermont schools this fall.

The Scott administration wants all students and staff to mask up regardless of their vaccination status when children return to the classroom this fall. But Secretary of Education Dan French says the universal masking guidance will expire as more young people get vaccinated.

Gov. Phil Scott said at his weekly press briefing Tuesday that the new school year would begin with in-person instruction, five days per week. The Vermont Agency of Education then briefed reporters on the highly anticipated COVID mitigation guidance that will be shared with school districts across the state later this week.

French said that “for the first few weeks” of the school year, the agency will be recommending a universal mask mandate for everyone in K-12 school buildings, regardless of vaccination status.

More from VPR: Reporter Debrief: What Does The Latest News About The Delta Variant Mean For Vermont?

But once 80% of the eligible student population in any given school has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, he said the guidance for that school will recommend masking only for unvaccinated individuals.

The forthcoming guidance partially contradicts recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and American Academy of Pediatrics, both of which have called on schools to impose a universal mask mandate for people in school facilities.

French, however, said that national guidance doesn’t acknowledge the context in Vermont, where more than 84% of eligible residents have already received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Vermont is certainly not an island, but Vermonters know vaccines work, and that understanding needs to be factored into our decision making for schools,” French said.

Getting to 80%

Most Vermont schools have a ways to go before they hit that 80% benchmark.

According to the Vermont Department of Health, 65% of 12 to 15 year olds have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, and 72% of 16 and 17 years old have gotten at least one shot.

French said Tuesday that schools enter the 2021-2022 academic year in a far better position than they did this time last year.

“This is a different context altogether from last year, when there was little guidance at the national level, and we had to chart our own course using the best public health information available … and a practical understanding of how Vermont’s education system is organized,” French said.

French said COVID guidance will also be less restrictive and easier to follow this time around - last year’s COVID guidance document for schools numbered 40 pages; French said this year’s took only two.

“I am pleased to say today we will be able to start the school year as predicted, with full in-person instruction and nominal mitigation recommendations,” French said.

No Social Distancing

Distancing requirements, French said, are absent from this year’s COVID guidance.

Dr. Rebecca Bell, a physician at the University of Vermont Medical Center and president of the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said Tuesday that she’s generally supportive of the administration’s approach to the school reopening plan.

"I think the administration’s plan is really in line with what pediatricians feel is important for the upcoming school year, and that is first and foremost to ensure students can have a safe and healthy school year with minimal disruptions,” Bell said.

Bell said she and her colleagues have been able to track a decline in children’s health over the past 18 months, and she said remote learning was a big contributor.

"The school setting is so important. It’s such a nurturing, stimulating environment where kids can be with their peers, where they can be with adults who care about them,” Bell said. “And all Vermont pediatricians are recommending that our patients go to in-person school this year, despite the Delta variant.”

Bell, however, said the prevalence of the Delta variant in Vermont — recent genomic sequencing suggests it’s responsible the recent rise in case counts — also underscores the importance of masking in indoor settings.

And Bell said the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics will continue advising schools to keep a universal mask mandate in place, regardless of student vaccination rates in individual schools.

More from NPR: Vaccinated People With Breakthrough Infections Can Spread The Delta Variant, CDC Says

“I would continue to recommend that until something changes,” Bell said. “And that’s because we know that although the vaccination is excellent at preventing severe disease and death, that even vaccinated folks can get infected with COVID and can spread it.”

French will meet with Vermont superintendents on Thursday to discuss the new guidance.

He said the agency will work with individual districts to help tailor protocols for specific schools.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

Updated: August 3, 2021 at 6:39 PM EDT
This story was updated to add more details.
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