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Schools to Open With Face Masks

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State Secretary of Education Daniel French speaks at Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly news conference Aug. 3. Image from ORCA Media.

Along with backpacks, pencils, and new clothes, back-to-school shopping will again include the latest in maskwear. For the second straight academic year, Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools — and all Vermont schools — will open with the recommendation that all students and staff wear face coverings due to the persistent COVID-19 virus.

The state Agency of Education issued a memo last week urging that everyone who comes into a public school facility wear a face mask, regardless of their vaccination status. That recommendation will be scaled back to apply only to unvaccinated people after 10 days, or until 80 percent of those attending a particular school are vaccinated. That means students under 12 will be encouraged to wear masks until a vaccine for that age group is available and 80 percent of those children have received it.

While the state memo, issued by Education Secretary Daniel French and Health Commissioner Mark Levine, was welcome guidance to local school officials, substantial questions remain.

“Secretary French was very clear that these are recommendations and not mandates, since we’re not in a state of emergency, so I don’t know what that means,” MRPS Superintendent Libby Bonesteel said. “I don’t know what boundaries I have as superintendent to make local decisions regarding safety measures.”

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Bonesteel and her colleagues around the state made it clear to French that they need more guidance from the state, such as how will they know when their school reaches an 80-percent vaccination rate, before school opens in two weeks. French indicated that further memos would be coming, but no timeline was announced at Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly news conference on Aug. 3.

French, in announcing the state’s recommendations, said the high number of Vermonters who are vaccinated gave officials hope that the effects of the virus will not be as serious this school year than last.

“It is unlikely Vermont’s condition for the virus will necessitate a state of emergency this year, so we will begin the school year where we ended, by publishing advisory recommendations to local school districts with the encouragement that they defer to state-level recommendations and state-level public health expertise in their decision-making,” French said.

State data currently do not provide vaccination rates by age group for each town. In Montpelier overall, more than 90 percent of eligible residents have received at least one vaccination, while 61 percent to 70 percent of Roxbury residents have been vaccinated.

On a statewide basis the data show the percentage of people ages 12–15 to have received at least one shot at 65.06. The rate for those ages 16–17 is 72.58 statewide. With the arrival of a vaccine for children under 12 still in the distance, it’s likely that students at Union Elementary and Roxbury Village School (at least) will be wearing masks for the foreseeable future.

“I don’t know where the students in Montpelier and Roxbury are in vaccination,” Bonesteel said. “I do know that we have planned to ask students what their level of safety is with this plan, whether they are comfortable with it.”

Bonesteel estimated that 98 percent or more of district teachers and staff had been vaccinated.

Lessons About Learning

Bonesteel said the pandemic has been difficult for all of those involved in public education, but that there had been silver linings among the COVID clouds.

Some alternative learning techniques that emerged from necessity have proven valuable and will be incorporated into the district’s toolkit going forward, she said.

While the classes of 2020 and 2021 have every right to feel a bit cheated by the pandemic, Bonesteel said she noticed a sort of Stockholm effect that bonded the senior classes, particularly the 2021 group. 

“They had a very different experience,” she said. “I’d say for our senior class it was not a traditional experience. From a very outsiders’ perspective they bonded together potentially stronger than any other class. I saw them as a very tight group of kids who went through something together and had that emotional bond.”

That class also experienced remarkable success on the playing surfaces, winning five state championships in the 2020–21 academic year in boys basketball, boys soccer, boys lacrosse, girls tennis, and girls ultimate. 

Maybe that bodes well for the Class of 2022, who will start the school year on Aug. 26 much as their predecessors did — by sporting the latest facewear.