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'Teetering right on the edge:' Vt. educator on weathering latest COVID-19 surge

An illustration shows school children in a classroom with face masks
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Dothan Brook School in White River Junction has had up to 11 staff members absent at one time this year due to COVID-19.

During the Scott administration’s weekly COVID briefing Tuesday, officials shared good news: case totals and hospitalizations are ticking down in Vermont after a handful of record-setting days this month.

But Nichole Vielleux, an educator at Dothan Brook School in White River Junction, says her district is still dealing with widespread student and staff absences caused by the virus. She also questioned recent changes to school contact tracing and testing procedures.

Education Secretary Dan French this week said the timing of recent guidance wasn’t ideal, but necessary given how fast the omicron variant was spreading.

For her part, Vielleux told VPR's Kevin Trevellyan the rollout didn’t respect the way schools operate. She also discussed the experience of teaching amid the latest omicron surge. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Nichole Vielleux: The first day back for us after after holiday break was, I think, Jan. 3 — and the Agency of Education was tweeting clarifications for that guidance. And I was just dumbfounded. I mean, the directives that we've been given have just been out of touch with what happens in schools.

I mean, the directives that we've been given have just been out of touch with what happens in schools.
- Nichole Vielleux

So [French's] most recent guidance was that we would shift the testing to parents. Well, we didn't have the materials we needed to shift that testing onto parents. The test kits that we received lasted for a day and a half. And we had nothing after that. So as the president of the [Hartford Education Association], I talked to our superintendent and I said, "This isn't acceptable." And he was wonderful. He drove himself to wherever they were storing the test kits, I believe it was Colchester. And the very next day, he picked them up for us. So we had another 3,000 test kits so that we could be in school following the guidance that the state had told us to follow.

Kevin Trevellyan: With parents and guardians now carrying the responsibility of testing kids instead of schools, do you think families are being vigilant enough to keep sick students from going to class?

I'm 100% confident they're not. Before when the nurses were really doing most of it, and keeping kids out for quarantine and making sure they were tested before they came back — we knew we had parents who were abusing it. And often it's parents who have an hourly job who don't have paid time off, and they can't keep their kids at home in order to keep their jobs. So those are the situations where I'm confident they're not. So the only fallback we have as a school is to make sure they have no visible symptoms. And our nurse basically said, "We can't do anything about it. The state has tied our hands." Even without contact tracing happening, she's still notifying kids if they have a contact in their class; they're called presumptive positives. And she's up until 12 o'clock, 12:30 still making contacts. It's been untenable for her.

More from VPR: Go inside this Island Pond elementary school as it tries to stay on top of COVID protocols

With schools prioritizing in-person learning, and with the recent changes to school COVID guidance, do you feel like there are enough precautions in place to keep teachers and other school staff safe?

I work with multiple people, some of whom are going through chemotherapy treatment for cancer. They don't have an immune system right now. And it's not safe for them to be in school.
- Nichole Vielleux

When Dan French's making these decisions with the Department of Health, I think he's putting everyone in the same category — that we're just going to keep schools open, no matter the impact it has on staff. I work with multiple people, some of whom are going through chemotherapy treatment for cancer. They don't have an immune system right now. And it's not safe for them to be in school. So this stay in school at all costs strategy doesn't work for them. So for sure, I think the science shows that kids are faring very well, but adults may not be — even the adults who are vaccinated and boosted.

I think a lot of attention is rightfully paid to students when we talk about education during the pandemic. How are you, and other teachers and other school staff doing in a general sense?

We're exhausted. I think exhaustion is the only word to describe how we're feeling. I mean, on any given day, our principal comes in and he has to figure out how to shuffle people around to just cover the absences. We've had days where we've had up to 10 and 11 staff members out in a fairly small school.

What it ends up doing is, it really takes the resources that we have and spreads them thinner and thinner and thinner. And everybody ends up more and more tired and more and more tired. I think the profession as a whole — you're looking at a mass exodus of teachers. People haven't felt respected. And I've had a number of people in my teaching community come to me in this area in the Upper Valley and say, "How do I resign? How do I get out of teaching?" And that hasn't happened to me in 20 years.

When you think about what tomorrow may look like at school, what next week may look like — what comes to mind for you?

Next week? I honestly I have no idea because I might be substituting in a classroom. We could be closed because we have so many people who have COVID. But it's always like we're teetering right on that edge of we almost don't have enough staff. And I'm also really worried about whether we're going to have enough staff to continue next year. You know, we have open positions and people are going to retire early. And we want to have quality staff. And it takes it takes a lot of training and a lot of teaching experience to make a successful school day.

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