Schools With High Vax Rates Can Lift Mask Requirements Soon | Off Message

Schools With High Vax Rates Can Lift Mask Requirements Soon


Gov. Phil Scott at a December press conference - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Gov. Phil Scott at a December press conference
With COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations dropping, Vermont is putting into place long-delayed guidance that says schools can stop requiring masks when 80 percent of students are vaccinated.

The move, which takes effect on February 28, is aimed at alleviating some of the social anxiety that students have experienced since the pandemic began two years ago, Gov. Phil Scott said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. He added that he hopes to soon lift mask requirements in schools altogether.

“Our kids need to get back to normal,” Scott said.

The governor said that he’d heard of schools where students are not allowed to use the library, talk with others at lunch, or play without masks on the playground. Mental health professionals, parents and students themselves have reported that last year's prolonged period of virtual instruction, and the continuing uncertainty and isolation of the pandemic, has been bad for students' psychological well-being.

In an advisory last month, the U.S. Surgeon General said that symptoms of depression and anxiety have doubled among young people during the pandemic, and school districts around Vermont have reported an increase in behavioral problems.

“The ongoing strain on our kids’ mental health is far outweighing the risk from COVID amongst this age group," Scott said.

Last August, Vermont created the recommendation that schools could drop their mask mandates when 80 percent of students were vaccinated. But as the Delta — and then Omicron — variant emerged and COVID-19 cases continued to rise, the plan was never implemented. Scott's announcement on Tuesday confirmed that the guidance will go into effect at the end of the month, at a time when many students will be returning from school vacation.
“This is only the first step,” Scott said. “In the very near future, if all goes as planned, we can recommend lifting the mask requirement recommendation altogether.”

School mask mandates vary widely from one district to another around the country, but many are now dropping their mask rules, according to District Administration, a publication for school district officials that tracks school mask mandates.

Vermont's improving data on vaccinations, infections and hospitalizations also plays a role in the move. According to the state Department of Health, 65 percent of the people in Vermont have completed vaccination — including a booster shot. COVID-related hospital admissions in Vermont are down 30 percent over the last two weeks, and cases are down about 23 percent this week compared to last, said Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation.
He said the health department recorded slightly more than 760 cases over the past week — the lowest weekly total the state has recorded since November 1. He expects to see cases continue to fall through the rest of February and into March.

“We do think that there'll still be some virus hanging around our state, whether that's 100 cases a day or 200 cases a day,” Pieciak said. “Hopefully we get even lower than that."

It’s not clear how many schools will be affected by the guidance; Vermont doesn’t have data on how many have reached 80 percent vaccination among students, Education Secretary Dan French said.

But some students may choose to continue to wear masks, even in schools that lift the requirement, Scott noted.

“That’s OK,” he said. “We need to be respectful and kind because as we move forward, it's individual circumstance that will drive these decisions. And everyone has the right to make those calculations of themselves.”

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