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News roundup: Vt. union officials, lawmakers agree on pension reform proposal

An orange 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, agreement between union officials and lawmakers over pension reform and more for Tuesday, Jan. 11.

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While Vermont's pandemic state of emergency has ended, the omicron variant is now circulating around the state.Click here for the latest on new cases, and findthe latest vaccination data online any time.

Editor’s note: The Vermont Department of Health says it is working on “accurate reporting” of COVID-19 case counts for recent days. Case dashboard updates for Saturday, Sunday and Monday, the department says, will be adjusted along with regular updates “as soon as possible.” 

1. Educators bristle at change in school testing guidance

Vermont students returned to school last week amid rapidly rising COVID-19 case counts. Some educators are upset by the Scott administration's decision to direct schools to stop contact tracing and PCR surveillance testing.

The change comes as the high case numbers and quick spread of the omicron variant render those strategies less effective, according to the Agency of Education. The agency announced the shift late Friday afternoon, Seven Daysfirst reported.

Nichole Veilleux, head of the local Hartford teachers union, says this change is going to contribute to teacher burnout.

“Just the level of stress in the way the news was dropped and the way it was disseminated to staff all over the state – it just had the feel of kind of a punch in the face,” she said.

Over the weekend, the statewide teacher’s union board of directors called the move a “demoralizing blow” to educators, students and parents.

More detailed guidance from the Agency of Education is expected this week.

- Anna Van Dine

Many school districts virtual or closed due to COVID outbreaks

Many Vermont school districts are kicking off this week either virtually or closed due to COVID outbreaks.

Last Friday, the Agency of Education announced they were ending contact tracing and surveillance testing programs moving forward. Parents and teachers voiced their disapproval for the policy change on social media.

Sean McMannon, superintendent at the Winooski School District, toldVermont Edition on Monday with this guidance he can prepare for students to safely return to the classroom.

“To get a preview, like, that was actually helpful,” he said. “We'll be looking forward to getting the guidance, in more detail, written guidance today, along with the science behind it, so that we can really start to digest it and build the procedures that are needed with our COVID response.”

School district officials look to reopen later this week.

- Marlon Hyde

Eight people held in Vermont’s prisons currently positive for COVID-19

Eight people in Vermont's prisons are currently positive for COVID-19, according to the Department of Corrections.

Those cases are spread across four facilities – one at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, two at Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland, one at Northern State Correctional facility in Newport, and four at Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans.

Meanwhile, DOC says 47 staff members are positive.

More than three-quarters of people in Vermont prisons are vaccinated, and just over 70% of those eligible for boosters have received them, according to DOC.

- Anna Van Dine

Rutland Regional Medical Center is operating with few available beds

Rutland Regional Medical Center is operating with few available beds.

That’s as more COVID patients show up in the emergency department and staffing challenges continue, worsened by school and day care center closures.

Meg Oakes, senior director of quality and safety, says it’s been harder than usual to send patients to other facilities that might be more appropriate.

For example, young people who need a certain level of psychiatric care.

“We have two patients who are adolescents who have been in the [emergency department] for more than 10 days. So that is not good, you know. It’s not the best environment for the patients in terms of being therapeutic,” she said.

She says that’s just one example of how the hospital is stressed.

- Lexi Krupp

2. Union officials, lawmakers approve pension proposal Monday

A panel of union officials and lawmakers gave unanimous approval on Monday evening to a proposal that would shore up Vermont’s public pension system.

Andrew Emrich is a teacher who represented the Vermont-NEA during the negotiations.

“It’s been weighing on people’s minds, so it’s great to get to this moment here, where we can present a framework that helps to solve this problem that we’re in,” Emrich said.

Under the proposal, the state would contribute more than $300 million this year alone toward unfunded liabilities in the pension system.

Teachers and state employees meanwhile would increase their annual contributions to the pension system, and also accept a reduction in benefits for future retirees.

The full Vermont Legislature will need to approve the proposal before it goes into effect.

- Peter Hirschfeld

More from Brave Little State: What's Going On With Vermont's Pensions?

State lawmakers considering Statehouse return date

The Legislative Joint Rules committee will decide this week when it's safe for lawmakers to return to the Statehouse.

The panel Monday afternoon heard from Dr. Cindy Noyes, an infectious disease specialist at UVM Medical Center.

She told committee members that she expects Vermont to have a record number of cases over the next two weeks, and then levels might begin to decline.

"It's hard to look at the numbers from last week and think they could go higher, but I suspect they will. But I hope that in the end of the next three to four weeks that we’ll start seeing some plateauing and then some reduction in cases,” she said.

Lawmakers are scheduled to come back Jan. 18 unless the Joint Rules Committee extends the current remote session.

- Bob Kinzel

Vermont Senate wants to boost funding for orgs working with young families

The Vermont Senate wants to boost funding for organizations that work with young families.

Lamoille County Sen. Richard Westman is asking for more than $7 million in new base funding for 15 parent child centers across the state.

Westman says the centers have become integral to the state’s early childhood programming.

“They do home visits. They do early childhood services. They do parent education. They do playground work. They do parent support groups,” he said.

The legislation would also establish a new parent child center network.

Westman says the network would enforce accountability measures for parent child centers, and also distribute the new funding.

- Peter Hirschfeld

3. Study suggests vaccinated women can pass COVID-19 antibodies to baby

A new study by researchers at UMass Amherst shows that women who get vaccinated against COVID-19 pass antibodies to their breastfeeding babies.

Thirty lactating women from across the country who had received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine participated in the study.

Researchers measured the immune response to the virus of the mothers' breastmilk and their babies' poop. They found the antibodies in both.

UMass professor Kathleen Arcaro was the senior author of the research.

"The takeaway is that breastfeeding mothers should get the vaccine for sure and continue breastfeeding. It's just another way to protect the infants from COVID-19,” she said.

Arcaro says the vaccine itself isn't getting into the mother's breast milk, just the immune response.

The antibodies were detected in infants regardless of age, from 1.5 to 23 months old.

Arcaro says the study shows that even if a woman has had COVID, she can still benefit from the vaccine.

- New England News Collaborative

4. Second Democrat announces lieutenant governor run

The executive director of the Vermont Council on World Affairs has become the second Democrat to announce a bid for the lieutenant governor’s office.

Patricia Preston has led the council for nearly a decade. She says she’s brought international leaders to Vermont to discuss climate change, education and economic issues.

“And I’m very proud to say that through this work, I’ve created millions of dollars of economic impact across the state. And really made Vermont a better place for all of its residents,” she said.

Preston, who was born and raised on a family farm in Orange County, joins Woodstock Democrat Charlie Kimbell in the race to succeed Lt. Gov. Molly Gray.

Gray announced in December that she’s running for Congress.

- Peter Hirschfeld

5. Remembering Ronald Chesney of Island Pond

Ronald Chesney of Island Pond was a mentor, a farmer, and a friend to many. He was famous for his bear hugs, had piercing blue eyes, a rugged, strong presence, and was the kind of storyteller who could sit and visit with anybody, says his daughter, Rhonda.

“The richness of life, is what he used to say to us,” she said. “This is what life is all about.”

But first and foremost, Ronald Chesney was a farmer. He loved the earth, and taught his kids how to be a steward of the land.

Rhonda remembers the deep reverence her dad had when he was in the woods.

“He taught us that the woods was – and is – a place of deep contemplation, and sport, and joy, and that we were incredibly lucky to be Vermonters,” she said.

Lifelong Vermonter Ronald Chesney died on Dec. 28. He was 81 years old.

- Anna Van Dine

Elodie Reed and Kevin Trevellyan compiled and edited this post.

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