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News roundup: Vt. schools to stop contact tracing, testing students for COVID, according to officials

A red background with vermont news round up written, with a small green graphic of vermot on the R of roundup
Elodie Reed

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Monday, Jan. 10.

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1. Public schools to stop contact tracing, testing students

Instead of Vermont schools testing and contact tracing students, that responsibility will now fall on households and parents.

WCAX reports the Vermont Agency of Education sent the new policy change to school districts Friday. The pivot is aimed to lessen the burden placed on schools.

It comes as many school districts have closed due to overwhelming positive COVID cases and staffing shortages after returning from holiday break.

Parents, teachers and lawmakers have been reacting to the policy change, including Vermont House Speaker Jill Krowinski.

Krowinski tweeted that lawmakers are planning to hear testimony this week, and will now ask the Agency of Education to explain its pivot plan to keep teachers, staff and students safe.

- Mary Engisch

State to distribute rapid COVID tests at schools

Public schools will soon become distribution centers for rapid antigen test kits in Vermont.

In the run up to the new year, the state relied on a patchwork of public locations to distribute antigen tests.

Secretary of Education Dan French told lawmakers last week that later this month, much of the state’s supply will be given out at K-12 schools.

“That’s really a strategy again that’s part of a broader strategy to deploy more tests to the public,” he said.

French said the number of test kits available will depend on federal allocations, and that the state will reserve a dedicated supply for students and school staff.

French also told lawmakers that schools will no longer have to administer antigen tests to students on-site.

He said students and their parents will instead self-test at home.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Scott administration rolling out child care testing program

In a press release Friday, Gov. Phil Scott announced the "Test for Tots" program.

The program provides rapid antigen COVID-19 test kits to regulated child care providers across Vermont.

The release states this initiative is meant to allow child care providers to test children and staff when a positive COVID-19 case is detected in their programs.

Tests for Tots offers tests for children between 2 and 5 years old, as well as for child care staff. These tests can be given at home.

Childcare providers will need to register for the program and pick up rapid test kits.

- Mary Engisch

2. Mental health experts say pandemic exacerbating problems for Vt. kids

Mental health experts say the pandemic is exacerbating problems for children and youth in Vermont.

Laurel Omland is the director of the Child, Adolescent, and Family unit at the Vermont Department of Mental Health. She says that before the pandemic, anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation were on the rise.

“And where we do have some data for the period since the pandemic started, we are seeing that… the biggest area of need is in relationship anxiety and attention,” Omland said. “And then there's a lack of optimism and interpersonal skills.”

In December, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a national advisory on the youth mental health crisis, calling it an “urgent public health issue” that needs “immediate awareness and action.”

Read/hear the full story.

- Anna Van Dine

3. Lawmakers mulling Statehouse expansion funding

Vermont lawmakers will decide over the next few weeks whether to spend $1.5 million to begin planning an expansion of the Statehouse.

Springfield Rep. Alice Emmons says the expenditure would fund an analysis by architects.

“To start allowing the planning and programming to start occurring so that we can really find out if that floor above the cafeteria is a viable option,” she said.

Some lawmakers say adding new story above the Statehouse cafeteria is the best option for increasing square footage in the building.

But Emmons says the Scott administration opposes that plan. And several lawmakers have said they’re reluctant to move forward without the administration’s blessing.

- Peter Hirschfeld

4. State reaches another EB-5 settlement

The state of Vermont has reached another settlement in the years-long legal aftermath of the Northeast Kingdom EB-5 scandal. The latest agreement is with the brokerage firm Merrill Lynch.

In late 2014, former Jay Peak Resort owner Ariel Quiros opened 13 accounts with Merrill Lynch to handle money for various development projects around the Northeast Kingdom.

Then in 2016, Quiros and his business partner Bill Stenger were accused of defrauding and misleading foreign investors in those projects. The two have since pleaded guilty to federal charges.

Because Merrill Lynch administered Quiros' accounts, Vermont regulators alleged the firm could be in violation of state securities law. This new settlement would resolve that allegation, and send $4.5 million to the court-appointed receiver who's now overseeing Jay Peak and other entities.

The settlement still needs approval by a federal judge in Florida.

- Henry Epp

5. Some lawmakers say it’s time to update law allowing terminally ill patients to hasten death

It’s been almost a decade since Vermont became the fourth state to allow terminally ill patients to hasten their deaths with medication prescribed by a doctor.

And some lawmakers say it’s time to update that statute.

Windsor County Senator Dick McCormack says the current law requires patients to have an in-person appointment with their doctors before they can receive the medication.

He says telehealth should be an option now for terminally ill patients who can’t easily access a doctor’s office.

“When we passed this law, telemedicine was an idea, it was an innovation,” McCormack said. “Now it’s boilerplate. It’s how it’s often done.”

Proposed changes to the law would also explicitly shield pharmacists from legal sanctions for dispensing the medication.

- Peter Hirschfeld

6. Officials finding horse tranquilizer in opioid overdose toxicology

Vermont’s State Veterinarian told lawmakers Wednesday that a drug used to sedate horses is increasingly being sought after by people who use opioids.

Speaking to the Senate Agriculture Committee, Dr. Kristin Haas said the drug xylazine is commonly used to calm quote “rowdy” horses.

Increasingly, however, the drug is showing up in fatal opioid overdoses, according to the state Department of Health.

“It is being, as I understand it now, combined with some other opiates to allegedly enhance whatever the experience is… and the challenge with that is that, it is not a drug that is responsive to Narcan,” she said.

Narcan, or naloxone, is the nasal spray used to revive people who have overdosed from opioids.

Haas says the state is reaching out to veterinarians to inform them about the issue, with a quote “emphasis on trying to keep that drug secure.”

- Elodie Reed

7. Cannabis regulators request more staff funding

The Vermont Cannabis Control Board has told lawmakers that the Board will need about a dozen new staff members to properly administer the state's new retail cannabis law.

Board Executive Director Brynn Hare told members of the House Ways and Means committee that the Board needs the positions soon because the state wants to start issuing licenses to growers and potential retailers by the beginning of April.

"In order to launch and conduct oversight of this cannabis market in the way that the Legislature has asked us to, in order to reach the policy goals the Legislature gave to us, we really need additional staff,” she said.

Pending legislative review, the Board says it believes it is on track to having the first retail stores open by October first.

- Bob Kinzel

8. State lawmakers considering boost to suicide prevention funding

A state Senate committee is considering legislation that would devote about $600,000 to suicide prevention.

Caledonia County Sen. Joe Benning, lead sponsor of the bill, says he was recently unable to reach a crisis center on behalf of a constituent who was considering self-harm.

“The frustration that I had in trying to reach somebody at the call centers is a direct result of them just not having enough resources to have them manned 24/7,” he said.

Benning’s bill would provide $125,000 in additional funding to crisis call centers.

The legislation would allocate another $400,000 to the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center.

- Peter Hirschfeld

9. State introduces new program to limit agriculture nutrient runoff

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture is rolling out a new program that will pay farmers for reducing the amount of phosphorus lost from their fields.

Farmers often fertilize their fields with manure, which contains phosphorus. The new program – the first according to the agency – will reward farms that go above and beyond state and federal requirements.

Adam Beaulieu runs Beaulieu Farm with his wife Melissa in Ryegate. They milk about 45 cows and manage just under 100 acres. And Adam says while he hadn’t heard of the program before VPR got in touch, he was interested in participating.

“I guess they're almost essentially paying us for our time. And it by far is an incentive to try to make everything better,” he said.

The program, funded through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, is accepting farmer applications through the end of the month.

Read the full story.

- Elodie Reed

10. Rutland County wetland targeted for conservation project

Roughly 170 acres of undeveloped land in Rutland County could soon be restored and conserved as wildlife habitat forever, thanks to a program overseen by Ducks Unlimited and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The property lies along Otter Creek, about two miles south of Brandon.

The Army Corps will provide the funding through a program that aims to offset wetland loss to development.

"Wetlands are some of the best tools, habitat types, we have, I think, to build more resilience into a system -- particularly in this case, being adjacent to Otter Creek,” said Ducks Unlimited biologist Lauren Alleman.

In nearby Middlebury, wetlands provided key protection against flooding during Tropical Storm Irene. They're expected to become more important with climate change.

The public can comment on whether the Army Corps should release funds to allow the property to be purchased by Ducks Unlimited through Jan. 27.

- Abagael Giles

Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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