Two Vermont school superintendents and a Dartmouth College scholar jointly called Tuesday for Vermont Gov. Phil Scott to implement a statewide mask mandate for all schools.
Libby Bonesteel of Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools and Brian Ricca of St. Johnsbury School District joined Anne Sosin, a policy fellow at Dartmouth College's Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, in making the appeal Tuesday via Zoom. The move is necessary to protect kids' health and keep them in the classroom, they said.
Last fall, Sosin said, Vermont offered the rest of the country "a blueprint" for returning to schools amid COVID-19, with 41 pages of guidance from the Vermont Agency of Education and Department of Health. This year, however — with case counts in the state 30 times what they were last fall and the new, highly transmissible Delta variant dominating — state guidance for schools is just two pages.
They state that students and staff should stay home when sick, and that schools should require universal masking indoors for the first 10 days of school. After that, masks should no longer be required for those eligible for the vaccine in schools where 80 percent or more of the student population has been vaccinated. Children under 12, who are not yet eligible for vaccines, should continue to wear masks.
Sosin said that the scaled-back guidance ignores the expertise of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Academy of Pediatrics, which both recommend universal masking in all K-12 settings. In Vermont, children between ages 6 and 11 have the highest rate of infection in the state, Sosin said. The Department of Health is not yet reporting COVID-19 cases in schools.
"Returning children safely to classrooms must now be the central goal of Vermont's public health response," Sosin said. "Vermont has shown the U.S. that it takes a village to reopen schools during a pandemic. The state, however, must not leave villages on their own this fall. It's time to build on, rather than retreat from, the lessons that ensured Vermont's success last year."
Because Vermont is no longer under a state of emergency, Gov. Scott has said he is unable to require schools to comply with the state's COVID-19 guidance. That means local districts are free to make their own rules. Canaan, a rural district bordering Canada and New Hampshire that is comprised of just one school, is the sole district in the state currently not requiring students and staff to wear masks.
Ricca said the local-control approach has created "some chaos and confusion" for educators and parents.
"I don't understand what's preventing our administration from being more emphatic and giving us clear, universal guidance to support a safe return to schools," Ricca said, noting that three-quarters of the students in his district aren't eligible for vaccinations yet. "We want students in school for in-person learning... Why wouldn't we want to do everything we can as a state to create and preserve a safe learning environment for them?"
Bonesteel said that there were five COVID-19 cases in her district last week, the first full week of school.
"I think the state and the school systems together were caught off guard with the quick rise of the Delta variant right before school was set to start," Bonesteel said. Because there is no longer a state of emergency, "we are pretty much in a typical school year... in an incredibly non-typical pandemic."
Bonesteel said that last year there was "an incredible collaboration" between her school district and the Vermont Department of Health. District employees had cellphone numbers of health department staffers and got an immediate response when they called for guidance on how to handle positive cases. Last week, she said she had trouble getting someone from the Health Department on the phone to support the district with its COVID response.
It wasn't until Saturday morning that she talked to someone from the department, who told her she should have required all students who rode a bus to a sports game with an infected student to quarantine. At that point, it was too late to follow that guidance.
"This year, I think we're being expected to be the public health experts in every situation," Bonesteel said. "There's new rules of this game that we're not sure of... We need immediate responses. We can't wait five days... That just adds fuel to the anxiety fire."
Kate Larose, a parent from Canaan who has an 8-year-old child who is immunocompromised, also spoke on Tuesday.
Larose criticized Gov. Scott for saying at a recent press conference that, since the only district not requiring masks right now is Canaan, "we're quibbling about nothing."
"The health and well-being of my child and other children around the state are not nothing, Gov. Scott," Larose said. She noted that, based on current guidance, high schools around the state may be dropping mask mandates next week.
Larose said that she was able to get her school district to pay for her son to attend a school with universal masking this year, "which is great for our child, and unfortunate for all the other children who are still going to school in Canaan." She and her husband are spending four hours a day driving him to and from his new school, Larose said.
Bonesteel and Ricca both said that they will follow CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations — not state guidance — which means all students and staff in their districts will wear masks until further notice. The superintendents said that overall mask compliance in their schools has been good.
"There are many different beliefs in our state... and just because I'm not getting fire for my mask mandate, I know other people are, significantly so, and the vitriol being thrown at them right now is not fair," Bonesteel said. "I think a universal mandate would help that situation."