Governor Phil Scott announced Tuesday that he will order schools in Vermont to reopen for instruction September 8.
Scott and other officials argued the state’s low infection rate, demonstrated ability to contain outbreaks and benefits of in-person education for younger children all make it smart for kids to return to the classroom in the fall.
“If Vermont can’t do it, I think we’re in big trouble as a country,” Scott said.
But he also stressed the state would not force local school districts to return to in-person instruction immediately.
“There is not a one-size-fits-all plan for our hundreds of schools, because each are a little bit different,” Scott said.
Due to the high levels of anxiety among families, teachers and staff, Scott argued for a conservative approach to reopening, one that respects local decision-making and builds trust instead of mandating it. He said he favors giving districts “a gentle nudge” toward in-person instruction.
Charged political rhetoric on the issue nationally is not helpful, Scott said.
The start date after Labor Day will give districts more time to implement and test new protocols, and would give anxious families and teachers the confidence that in-person education was safe, he said.
“Just like we’ve turned the spigot slowly on our economic restart, it makes sense for some to start with a more conservative approach,” Scott said.
Health Commissioner Mark Levine said he’d been watching the nation and region and felt comfortable with Vermont’s move.
“Based on the trends that we’ve been seeing for some time now, I continue to believe we’ve come to a point in our response to this virus that allows us to bring our children back to school in a carefully considered, measured and safe way,” Levine said.
If the state's infection rates were similar to those in places like Arizona and Florida, “we would not be having this conversation,” and would instead be planning a fully remote school year, Levine said.
But studies have shown that younger children are less likely to transmit the coronavirus or develop severe symptoms, and that schools, including ones in European nations with low rates, have “enjoyed great success in reopening,” he said.
“Vermont essentially looks more like Europe than the rest of the United State,” Levine said.
That rosy outlook is somewhat at odds with the landscape of creeping menace Scott described last week as higher infection rates move toward Vermont's borders. He used the image of a wildfire to describe the spread in states within driving distance to justify the mask mandate that goes into effect Saturday, August 1.
But officials aren’t making the reopening decision based solely on the infection risks. Rather Levine said his job was to weigh those risks against the “educational, developmental, social and emotional risks” for young children of not being in the classroom.
“Now is the right time for Vermont to restart in-person learning,” he said.
Scott noted that returning children to school will also provide needed relief for many working parents.
Secretary of Education Dan French acknowledged the “considerable amount of uncertainty and anxiety” around the issue, but said he hoped the additional time would allow districts to prepare. He acknowledged, however, that some parents may not feel comfortable sending their kids back to in-person educational settings.
The state supports districts in expanding remote learning capabilities, but does not require it. Ultimately, families dissatisfied with the offerings in their districts have the option of homeschooling, which, he noted, is on the rise.