Vermont students should wear masks when school starts in a few weeks, Education Secretary Dan French said Tuesday. But with no state of emergency in effect, the "guidance" from the state amounts to recommendations, and rules will be up to local school districts, he said.
Districts should ask students to wear masks regardless of vaccination status, French said at Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly news conference. Later, at schools where 80 percent of students over age 12 and staff have received at least one dose of vaccine, the guidance calls for districts to allow vaccinated students and staff to remove the masks. Students under 12 aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated.
French noted there won’t be any social distancing in the state’s guidance, which is expected to be issued this week.
“Masking is a good strategy at the beginning of the year as students and staff settle into patterns of full in-person instruction,” he said.
Vermont’s in a markedly different situation this year as opposed to last. In September 2020, five months into the pandemic, vaccines weren't available, so the state relied solely on masking and distancing measures. Many schools were preparing for remote instruction. And Vermont was under a long-running state of emergency, which enabled the state to mandate restrictions to the districts.
The Agency of Education still has many questions to answer as the school year gets under way, such as whether students could be denied entry to school if they fail to follow masking rules enacted by the local school board. French said that will be up to the school districts, not the state.
“This specific question is one we’ll have to explore further,” he said.
COVID-19 cases are up in Vermont and around the country. But Scott and other officials remain confident that Vermont’s high vaccination rate, now at 84.1 percent of residents with at least one dose, will protect the state from the hospitalizations and deaths seen elsewhere. While cases are expected to rise in Vermont over the next four or five weeks, officials said the forecast for COVID-19 deaths in August is zero to six.
The state has strongly encouraged eligible Vermonters to get vaccinated, sending teams to an array of popular summer events and gathering spots. This week, the sites include the Woodstock Inn, Wells River Chevrolet, the Waterbury farmers market, the Bennington Museum courtyard music series, and the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro.
The push appears to be paying off. The state reported that the number of Vermonters who got a first shot increased 14 percent over the last seven days. There are still 87,000 Vermonters who are eligible for shots and haven’t received them.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that even fully vaccinated people should wear a mask in parts of the country where the rate of virus is at least 50 new cases per 100,000 people over the last week. Chittenden and Essex counties this week passed that threshold, according to the CDC.
But Health Commissioner Mark Levine said Tuesday that Essex County, which hasn’t reported a new case in four days, no longer qualifies. “Our overall state guidance around masking for vaccinated Vermonters currently remains the same,” Levine said. “The greatest risk now continues to be the unvaccinated. Unvaccinated individuals need to protect themselves and others by masking indoors.”
Levine noted that inevitably, no matter what precautions are taken, cases of COVID-19 will turn up in Vermont schools. The state’s contact tracing will be in place, as it was last year.
“The Delta variant is a little different, but it’s still the coronavirus we all know,” Levine said. “We have two incredibly powerful mitigation strategies: vaccination when it can be used, and we hope it can be used in all students soon; and masking in an indoor setting.”
Correction August 3, 2021: A previous version of this story contained an erroneous title for Dan French.