Gov. Phil Scott has ordered the closure of all Vermont schools by Wednesday, March 18, in response to the worsening coronavirus pandemic.
All pre-K through 12th-grade schools must be closed until at least April 6, but that directive "may very well be extended for a longer period," the governor's office said in a press release Sunday.
No student is required to be in school Monday or Tuesday if their parents or guardians prefer to keep them home, the press release said. All schools will be closed beginning on Wednesday.
“The orderly dismissal of schools is essential to support both the State’s response to COVID-19 and the needs of children and families across Vermont,” Scott said in the release. “We must ensure children are safe, nourished, and still learning even as the traditional structure of school is disrupted. The work of educators will be essential in this effort.”
Vermont joins more than 20 other states that have closed schools amid the outbreak. That includes neighboring New Hampshire, which announced several hours before Vermont that it would move to remote learning for three weeks.
Scott’s directive says that schools will remain open for administrators, teachers and staff to provide “essential services” and to “plan and implement” remote learning opportunities.
The governor also enlisted districts to help provide food and special-needs services, and he said schools will need to collaborate with the state on childcare options for those “essential” to the state’s response to the outbreak, including health care workers.
“We need local government — and especially our schools and educators — to lend their capable hands and their enormous hearts in this effort. It is very important to the overall response,” Scott said in the press release.
An hour after Scott announced his decision, Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French joined a conference call with lawmakers on the Joint Rules Committee to explain how he’s helping school districts navigate what he described as a “rapidly evolving” situation.
“I’ve had daily — in some cases, hourly — contact with superintendents,” French said. He later added, “We know what the work is before us. It’s just a tremendous amount of work at all levels.”
French said that among the many issues the Agency of Education needs to address is how to feed children, particularly those who rely on free or subsidized school lunches.
With that in mind, the state applied for and received a federal waiver that lets school districts offer meals outside of “congregated” settings like cafeterias. French said there are two main ways that can happen: some type of meal-delivery system, or on-site programs that allow kids to “grab and go.”
French anticipated that approaches will vary across the state. Rural districts, for example, may want to adopt a different system than urban ones, he said.
Asked about compensation for school employees during the closures, French said that, because teachers under contract will be required to show up to work, he believed they will still be paid. Compensation for hourly workers, however, presents a more complex issue because of how some of those positions are funded, French said.
“I’m confident we’re going to do our best for the hourly personnel,” he said. “Those are things that will be … first on our desk as we provide guidance to the field.”
French also echoed the governor’s call for districts to step up and find ways to help health care workers.
“We have to ensure that particularly at this vulnerable moment, as we anticipate significant pressure on our health care system, those people on the front lines don’t have to worry about where their students are,” French said.
Pressure had been mounting on Scott to make the move ever since he declared a state of emergency on Friday — an order that included a ban on nonessential gatherings of more than 250 people but fell short of school closures.
Explaining that decision, Scott stressed that short-term, preemptive closures have not proven effective in slowing the spread of the virus. Keeping kids at school rather than at home alone, or with parents and grandparents who are at a higher risk, was not the best approach “at this time," Scott said Friday.
In a phone call with lawmakers the following day, Health Commissioner Mark Levine warned that closing schools too early could also hinder the state's ability to treat the outbreak by forcing some health care workers to stay home and take care of their kids. The health commissioner said that this weekend would be "key" in determining when the call would be made, emphasizing that it was not a question of "if," but "when."
In Sunday’s press release announcing the closures, Levine said the decision is based on “the best scientific evidence available” to the health department and will help "keep us ahead of the curve."
Some Vermont schools decided not to wait. On Saturday, the Two Rivers Supervisory Union announced that its six schools would be closed beginning Monday after someone from Ludlow tested presumptive positive for coronavirus.
Scott’s announcement came shortly after health officials announced three more presumptive positive coronavirus cases in Vermont, bringing the state’s total to eight. Officials have warned that those numbers will likely grow in the coming days as the state ramps up its testing efforts.
During a conference call Sunday evening to discuss the state's efforts, Vermont senators shared a wide range of concerns from constituents, especially about the impact of school closures.
These include parents' need to find childcare, how to feed children who rely on school lunch programs, and questions about the governor's order requiring teachers and school staff to work at schools in a different capacity.
“I just wanted to give you a heads up that we’re already getting complaints” from teachers, Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham) told her colleagues.
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), who hosted the call, said he was aware of such issues and asked senators on the education committee to look into them.
Ashe said he’d also been in contact with French and Scott’s chief of staff, Jason Gibbs, about options for parents who’ve had little chance to arrange childcare.
“They were both saying that childcare for people who need to be at work is top of their mind,” Ashe said.
Senators discussed temporarily raising attendance caps on childcare facilities to increase capacity.
Other concerns included how an economic downturn might hit the state budget, how to help businesses meet payroll, how volunteers can help their neighbors and ways to prevent retail hoarding.
“If we can place limits on how much Heady Topper one person can buy, perhaps Purell can fall into the same category,” Ashe quipped.
Kevin McCallum contributed reporting.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.