Reporter debrief: Changes could be coming to school COVID policies
Gov. Phil Scott and members of his cabinet provided updates Tuesday, Feb. 8, on the state's ongoing pandemic response.
Officials discussed potential changes to coronavirus policy in public schools, particularly tied to testing and masking.
That's as administration officials continue to shift their messaging to issues beyond the pandemic.
Vermont Edition co-host Connor Cyrus spoke to VPR reporter Anna Van Dine about some of the major takeaways from the briefing. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Connor Cyrus: One thing to note is that for the second week in a row, the governor did not discuss the pandemic in his opening remarks. Instead, he's emphasizing his funding proposal for expanded cell phone coverage. What did he tell us about this?
Anna Van Dine: Yeah, on the topic of COVID, I think his exact words were, "I don't have much to add." And instead, he focused on some other aspects of his agenda — specifically, like you mentioned, that cell phone coverage. And I think this has to do partially with this move, that hopefully is happening, from pandemic to endemic that we heard members of the administration talk about a bit more last week. And when we did touch upon the pandemic, there was a focus by Human Services Secretary Jenney Samuelson on mental health support going forward. But yeah, for about the first 20 minutes we did not hear much about the coronavirus.
And I think a lot of people might find that encouraging because if there's not a lot to add, then there's not a lot of pandemic. But that's not necessarily the case. Education Secretary Dan French did give a brief update on COVID in schools. What did he say?
He said that vaccination rates are fairly high and omicron is receding — things look alright. Antigen test supply is steady; those are the rapid tests that are used for the test at home program, which, by the way, has been expanded to include independent schools.
He also mentioned that there is a testing program for school staff that will be launching soon. And it's still being designed. But it's a test program that would provide two antigen tests per staff member per week so that they can continue to consistently test themselves and monitor themselves for exposure. And near the end of the briefing, we also heard Gov. Scott and Secretary French emphasize a desire to get back to normal routines for students. They seem to think that now is time to try as hard as possible to get back to a sort of normal.
Watch the Scott administration's Feb. 8 press conference below, courtesy of ORCA Media:
Part of that normal, I think, brings up the debate of masking and masking requirements in schools. Now, we know that Vermont does not have masking requirements, but does have a recommendation by the Agency of Education that pretty much all schools are following right now. Is the current recommendation something that could change soon?
Well, it could. And to be specific about what you were just saying, the advisory from the Agency of Education says that schools should require universal masking for all students and staff until at least the end of February, and then that rule will be reconsidered. So at that point, the state might roll it back and say that masks will no longer be required when the vaccination rate among eligible students is 80% or higher. But for now, this choice would be made on a school by school basis. And members of the administration were asked about this during the press conference. And they didn't provide any updates to this situation; they really just reiterated that it's a decision that will be made by the end of the month, and they're still considering things.
But I did talk to a superintendent this morning who said they hope that the school mask recommendation gets dropped at the end of the month, because there's a lot of political divisiveness in communities around this issue. For example, there have been parents reporting school staff to the state for child abuse because they have to ask kids to wear masks — that kind of thing, which has been going on throughout the pandemic. But there's a real point of frustration that it sounds like many communities are at right now. But at the same time, it's well worth remembering that kids under 5 still aren't eligible for any kind of vaccine. And there are still immunocompromised people in our communities. You know, the pandemic is not over.
We don't have a lot of time, but I do want to get to a question that you asked Secretary of Education Dan French about the importance of vaccinations in schools and kids. As you noted, there are still very stark disparities in vaccination rates among kids. You noted that Essex County only has 26% of 5 to 11 year olds vaccinated, and Chittenden County has 77%. What did the education secretary say about how they're going to equalize the playing field?
It sounds like plans are still kind of in progress. They're figuring out what they might want to do. But they recognize that there are some additional resources that are necessary in some areas, but there weren't specifics about what those plans might be.