- File: Diana Bolton
As Vermont students prepare to return to class this month, the state has loosened its school COVID-19 guidance in the belief that protocols can be relaxed without opening the door to widespread virus outbreaks on campus.
The focus is on keeping students in class, according to Education Secretary Dan French. "[COVID-19] testing should not be used as a way to force kids to leave school or a requirement for them to reenter school," he said during a virtual briefing at the State Board of Education's August 12 meeting.
"The temperature in the education community and in our schools is: Let's move forward with education," French added.
In a two-and-a-half-page memo released two days earlier, the Vermont Agency of Education and Department of Health said students with mild respiratory symptoms should be allowed to stay in school. The memo de-emphasizes COVID-19 testing and provides general advice: encourage good hygiene practices, recommend students and staff keep up-to-date on vaccinations, and send students home if they are too ill to learn.
"COVID-19, like the flu, is now a part of our lives," the memo states. Vermont's changed guidelines mirror the national trend to drop most of the safety measures adopted for schools in the pandemic era.
As part of adapting to the new reality, French told the board, the state will ask school nurses to use their "clinical decision-making" skills to decide whether symptomatic students and staff are well enough to remain in school. If they have a runny nose, nasal congestion or a slight cough, for example, they may be able to return to class without a COVID-19 test, just as in the days before the pandemic.
Masking is not being emphasized this school year, French added. With the state's "fairly high vaccination rate" and new treatment options for COVID-19, "the risks associated with the virus [are] far less than they were two years ago." He noted that mask mandates can cause "social and instructional interference."
In the absence of masks, contact tracing and regular COVID-19 testing, however, it remains to be seen whether schools will be able to operate as they did before March 2020, or whether there will be virus outbreaks, many absences or even temporary school closures, as there were last year.
Some public health experts say that, without substantive measures to curb virus spread, some school-year dysfunction is inevitable.
"Wishful thinking is not a mitigation strategy for ensuring safe and stable in-person education," said Anne Sosin, a public health researcher at Dartmouth College and an outspoken critic of Vermont's handling of the pandemic. Although vaccines are now available for everyone 6 months and older, the virus has changed rapidly as the more transmissible Omicron has replaced Delta as the dominant strain, she noted.
Because Omicron evades the protection of both vaccines and immunity from previous infections, "vaccines, while protective against severe illness and death, aren't enough to limit the kind of disruptions that we've seen in schools, childcares and camps," Sosin said, "and so I'm concerned that Vermont is setting the stage for significant disruption."
With new Omicron-specific vaccines on the horizon, Sosin is hopeful that the outlook for schools will improve, but "we're not there yet," she said.
Recent news headlines lend credence to Sosin's concerns. Camp Abnaki, a popular boys' overnight camp in North Hero, ended sessions earlier than planned this month after a virus outbreak affected at least 25 campers and counselors, according to reporting by WCAX. And outbreaks in states that have resumed classes — including Oklahoma, Louisiana and California — have already forced administrators to close schools temporarily.
Other public health experts share Sosin's worries. A group of eight researchers and professors from across the country released an Equity Schools Policy Plan this month, calling for "school safety standards aligned with evidence, equity, and inclusion." Their suggestions include encouraging COVID-19 vaccinations through back-to-school vaccine clinics, providing surveillance testing, improving school buildings' ventilation and filtration, and imposing mask mandates at the beginning of virus surges.
Long touted as a leader in vaccine uptake, Vermont has seen its vaccination rates for children ages 5 to 11 lag well behind teens and adults. Just 15 percent of children in that age group have received the two-dose vaccine series and a booster, compared with 41 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds, according to the state Department of Health's vaccine dashboard.
Vermont has made some progress on the ventilation and filtration front. Since 2020, Efficiency Vermont has worked with 365 public and independent schools across the state to help them improve indoor air quality through HVAC system upgrades and air-quality monitoring. About $17 million in federal funding has been distributed to those schools to help them meet guidelines laid out by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, a professional organization that develops best practices for indoor air quality.
Schools have used the money for projects big and small: evaluating ventilation needs, putting portable air purifiers or self-contained ventilators in classrooms, upgrading HVAC filters, and, in some cases, replacing entire building ventilation systems. Efficiency Vermont is in the process of allocating another $13.5 million in federal funds for additional work.
There's still room for improvement, "but we've been able to make some dent in the schools," Efficiency Vermont energy consultant Allison Ross said. "We're not going to get all schools to full ASHRAE-level ventilation, but we are helping them figure out where they stand right now and what it might take to improve ventilation."
The recommendation for masking during COVID-19 surges is one that's been advanced by Dr. Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University, who recently published a study comparing virus rates in 79 school districts in the greater Boston area. Most of those districts dropped mask mandates at the end of February, while just two, Boston and Chelsea, kept masking in place through the end of the school year. Communities that lifted mask requirements saw significantly higher rates of COVID-19 than the two masked districts.
In an interview with Seven Days, Murray said requiring masking in schools in December and January — assuming a winter COVID-19 wave associated with holiday gatherings, travel and more indoor time — would likely be an effective mitigation strategy. She's hopeful that some school districts will put such preemptive plans into place.
That doesn't seem likely in Vermont. Masking recommendations were lifted in early March, and the state's new guidance mentions masks only briefly.
"Staff and students should be permitted to exercise their own or their family's decision-making to wear a mask in school settings," it reads. Furthermore, a sick student being sent home "may be required to wear a mask while awaiting pick-up."
A day after Vermont released its COVID-19 guidance, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its own updated guidance for K-12 schools. The CDC guidance is "more robust" than Vermont's, Sosin said, but she's skeptical that most schools will follow it. The CDC, for example, says "schools might need to require masking in settings such as classrooms or during activities to protect students with immunocompromising conditions or other conditions that increase their risk for getting very sick with COVID-19."
French told state board members that the Department of Health would review the CDC's recommendations to assess whether any tweaks to state guidance were necessary. A spokesperson for the Agency of Education said this week that the review is still under way.
An August 15 letter to parents and staff from Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools superintendent Libby Bonesteel provides a window into how school districts will put the new state guidance into practice. Classes resume in Montpelier Roxbury's four schools on Thursday, August 25, about a week earlier than most districts.
If a student or staff member has mild respiratory symptoms with no fever and no recent exposure to COVID-19, the school nurse will decide whether to send the person home, Bonesteel wrote. If a symptomatic person has a fever over 100.2 degrees, however, he or she will be automatically sent home and should not return until fever-free for 24 hours without using medication. If a person tests positive for COVID-19, five days of isolation are required. After that, the person can return to school if symptoms have improved and they are fever-free; testing and masking are not required.
School nurses will give rapid antigen or more sensitive LAMP tests to symptomatic students unless families opt out. In every school in the district, KN95 masks will be available to those who want them.
Bonesteel also asked community members to consider becoming substitute teachers, noting that the district anticipates a shortage throughout the school year. That's a concern shared by many administrators.
Milton superintendent Amy Rex said the new virus guidance seems appropriate, but going into the new school year with staffing vacancies and a shallow pool of subs "makes operating school a puzzle to be solved every day, regardless of why people are out."
Bonesteel, meanwhile, ended her letter with an exuberant, and possibly ominous, sign-off.
"Cheers to a new school year [Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools]!" she wrote. "Let's see what surprises this one brings!"