Gov. Phil Scott, left, and Education Secretary Dan French in 2018
Vermont's K-12 schools will return to in-person instruction in the fall, state officials said Wednesday, though they cautioned that closures may be reinstated in response to future coronavirus outbreaks.
"Our approach will focus on the health and safety of kids, their families, as well as teachers, staff and anyone else working in schools, and find ways to make the school day as normal as possible," Gov. Phil Scott said during his regular press briefing Wednesday.
Scott shuttered schools in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which, at the time, was weeks away from its peak in Vermont. Health officials were still learning about how to best curb its spread, and many feared that children could transmit the virus to older, more vulnerable adults.
On Wednesday, Scott said officials are still "learning more every day" about the virus. But he said they feel confident in the tools they have and the knowledge they've gained over the last three months to prepare for the transition back to school.
"We acknowledge there's no perfect replacement for the learning that takes place in a school building," Scott said. “[Remote learning] cannot continue without kids falling behind in their schoolwork."
Schools have scrambled to switch to full-time remote learning, but the alternative method has proven difficult for nearly everyone involved. Some districts — especially those in rural Vermont, where many families do not have reliable internet access — have struggled with the transition. And reports around the country suggest that many students' learning experience has suffered.
"We recognize that as much as COVID-19 has been an unprecedented public health emergency, in many cases, it has been an education emergency," said Vermont Education Secretary Dan French.
French said the Agency of Education expects to publish school reopening guidelines next week. He said the guidance will focus on preventing the virus from entering buildings, quickly identifying cases and mitigating further spread.
Among the expected guidelines are requirements that students and staff undergo temperature checks and verbal health screenings at the start of each day. All school employees will be required to wear masks, while students will be "encouraged" to wear facial coverings "when appropriate," French said.
The agency is also working on guidance that will detail how the state responds to outbreaks.
"In the fall, we'll be entering a period of what the CDC terms 'reactive school closure,' where the closure of a single school or groups of schools in a region might be necessary [in response to] an outbreak of the virus," French said. "This means that, as much as we are planning for in-person instruction in the fall, we're also preparing to improve our ability to provide remote learning as a contingency."
French said there are three steps to the state's closure model. Step one will look like how schools ended the year — closed buildings and full-time remote learning — while step two will allow students to attend school under "fairly restrictive" health measures.
Step three, the least restrictive approach, is where French expects Vermont will be in the fall. But he said specific school districts or regions of the state could move up and down the scale if outbreaks occur.
It remains to be seen whether Vermont will experience a second wave of the virus. After peaking in mid-April, the state went weeks without any major spikes in coronavirus cases before identifying an outbreak in Winooski late last month. State officials said Wednesday that the outbreak has spread to several nearby communities, including Burlington, and now accounts for 74 of the state's 1,100 coronavirus cases to date.
French said the agency will likely need to alter the guidance over the coming months as experts learn more about the virus. Both he and Scott said their main priority is keeping schools open.
"It's going to look a little different than it did before COVID-19," Scott said of school in the fall. "But we need to get through these issues together, because we know how vital it is for our kids and their development to move forward and reopen."
In response to Wednesday's announcement, Vermont's statewide teachers' union criticized Scott and French for declaring school back in session "before the real hard work of planning and preparation has been completed."
“We understand the economic and political pressure to reopen our schools, but we have to make sure the decision is made with the best, most up-to-date public health science," Don Tinney, a high school English teacher and president-elect of the 13,000-member Vermont-NEA, said in a statement.
The union said state officials must work with parents, educators and administrators to finalize a road map for the fall.
Tinney said the union has assembled a task force and expected to publish a summary on Thursday of what educators believe must occur before schools can safely reopen.
"There is no place where educators would rather be than in school, teaching and caring for students," Tinney said in the statement. "But without concrete, health- and science-based protocols that must be followed by every school district, today’s announcement adds even more pressure to folks doing this critical planning.”