Despite State Guidance, Some Highly Vaxxed School Districts Will Keep Masks On | Off Message

Despite State Guidance, Some Highly Vaxxed School Districts Will Keep Masks On


  • Sarah Cronin
On Tuesday, Gov. Phil Scott announced that schools could stop requiring masks on February 28 if at least 80 percent of their students were vaccinated against COVID-19.

"The fact is, our kids need to get back to normal," Scott said at his weekly press conference. "They've been through a lot. So we should begin this transition as soon as possible."

"In the very near future, if all goes to plan, we intend to recommend lifting the mask requirement recommendation altogether," he added.

But in the days following the announcement, some superintendents in the most highly vaxxed parts of the state — Chittenden and Washington counties — have signaled that they will proceed cautiously when it comes to ditching the face coverings.
All six of the schools in the Champlain Valley School District — which draws students from Charlotte, Hinesburg, Shelburne and Williston — have vaccination rates near or above 80 percent, according to superintendent Rene Sanchez. Leading the way is Champlain Valley Union High School, where about 91.5 percent students have had at least two COVID-19 vaccine jabs.

But with a number of unanswered questions about the guidance, all students and staff in the district will remain masked when they return from school break on February 28, Sanchez wrote in a letter to families on Wednesday. Part of the concern, Sanchez wrote, is that the date for lifting masking requirements coincides with a return from vacation, a time when many students will be traveling.

Further, he wrote, the district is unsure about whether it should use its own data or state data on student vaccination rates. It was also unclear whether the state guidance would still require masks for unvaccinated students or preschool kids under age 5 who are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

"For students who are ineligible for the vaccine, we feel it is important that they remain masked until the recommendations are lifted or the vaccines become available," Sanchez wrote in an email to Seven Days on Thursday.

Finally, Sanchez wrote, it was unclear how municipal mask requirements would affect the school guidance. Williston, for example, recently extended its masking mandate for indoor public spaces until March 22.

There's no conflict there, according to Agency of Education spokesperson Ted Fisher. Vermont school districts are legally considered their own municipalities, so town mandates can't apply to school buildings, he said. Further, the state recommendations are advisory and not legally binding, so districts have the right to implement their own rules, Fisher added. 

Masks, though, are still required on school buses, according to Fisher, because there's a federal mandate in place.

In Burlington, all nine schools will continue with universal masking when students return from break on March 2, Superintendent Tom Flanagan wrote in a letter to families on Wednesday. The district plans to review vaccination rates and COVID-19 positivity rates in the schools and city before making any decision about lifting the mask requirement, Flanagan wrote. The earliest that would come is mid-March.

"However, I am committed to acting in the best interest of our students and staff," Flanagan wrote, "and if we don't receive the information needed, or if cases again spike or other outside factors come into play, we may need to be flexible on this anticipated start date."

Washington County has a vaccination rate that is similar to Chittenden County's. And in the Montpelier Roxbury Public School District, superintendent Libby Bonesteel is advocating for a go-it-slow approach that's similar to some of her colleagues'.

Bonesteel, though, appears to have interpreted the governor's announcement as a requirement. She said in a letter Tuesday that the district couldn't enforce masking as of February 28 in its three schools where 80 percent of students are vaccinated. Bonesteel could not be reached for comment about the apparent discrepancy.

In her letter, Bonesteel wrote that the district "highly recommends that all students and staff wear masks while inside our school buildings for the foreseeable future."

Bonesteel noted that some staff and students might be immunocompromised or have other anxiety about COVID-19. She said, for instance, that she will continue to wear a mask, "not only because I live with my elderly, immunocompromised mother, but also because I care deeply for my colleagues and the students we serve."

"Masks help alleviate this anxiety so that people can focus on their job and learning," Bonesteel wrote in her letter. She said that the district would continue to provide KN95 masks to students or staff who want them.

"I recognize that this could potentially be a charged issue," Bonesteel wrote. "I also know that the [Montpelier Roxbury] community is one that cares about each other ... Our actions are what matter here. Right now, with positive case counts still occurring in our community, an action that shows we care may be to continue to wear a mask while in the school buildings."