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COVID Cases Surge, Schools Close

The line for COVID testing on the Barre-Montpelier Road in Berlin backed up nearly to the main road during a recent surge of COVID-19 cases. Photo by Alex Brush.
An intense week following a school holiday vacation saw 34 known positive COVID-19 cases in the Montpelier Roxbury Public School District and ended with both the Roxbury Village School and Montpelier High School closing on Monday, Jan. 10. for lack of staff. Then, all four schools in the Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools District closed Tuesday, Jan. 11. 

If that weren’t enough for one week, on Jan. 7 the Vermont Agency of Education changed its guidance around both COVID-19–related contact tracing and surveillance testing. As of writing this article, school administrators were awaiting new guidance about how to move forward. 

With the surge of new cases came a surge of people in close contact with those who tested positive. The close contacts also needed tests, and so long lines of cars circled around the parking lot and extended out to the main road at the Vermont Health Department testing site in Berlin on Route 302 most afternoons, culminating in a back-up on Route 302 on Saturday, Jan. 8.

District superintendent Libby Bonesteel emailed daily announcements about new case counts last week, ending in a Friday, Jan. 7 email that not only told of eight new COVID cases that day, but warned “We are currently experiencing significant staff shortages due to COVID symptoms and positive cases” and the school may need to close. 

Two days later, on Sunday, Jan. 9, parents received a district email announcing the Roxbury Village School would close Monday  “Due to a near complete lack of staff,” plus an additional four positive cases in the district. The very next morning, Monday, Jan.10, Bonesteel sent both a phone and email announcement to the community announcing the high school would close as well.  

“Due to a significantly high number of staff absences, Montpelier High School will be closed today, January 10th,” wrote Bonesteel. She also said that despite the closure, students could still come to the high school for their weekly surveillance testing (the final week it was offered based on the new guidance).

Other COVID measures went into place last week, Bonesteel said in her emails, which included:

  • A recommendation that if someone in the home tests positive, every person in the home should quarantine to reduce spread of the virus.
  • The district ordered adult- and child-sized KN95 masks for all students and staff.
  • A COVID-19 booster vaccination clinic may be offered for students 12 and over through the school district. The details have not yet been finalized. 
  • Spectators no longer may attend indoor sporting events held this week. Games will live-stream through the school district’s YouTube channel, Bonsesteel said.
  • The schools may serve as distribution sites for antigen/LAMP tests, but the details are not yet worked out.
  • In her Jan. 9 email, Bonesteel said she is awaiting guidance from the Vermont Department of Education about how contact tracing and notifications about positive cases will look going forward. She said she will wait for that guidance before reaching out to the community.
Bonesteel ended her Jan. 9 email with this message:

“There is no doubt that for many of us this is an incredibly stressful time. Our MRPS staff are absolute ROCK STARS — stepping in to cover for colleagues who cannot come to work, making kids laugh, and caring for each other. To say that this is taking a toll on our educators is an understatement. During this surge, school will not look ‘normal’ for many of our classrooms. We will work very hard to keep schools open, however please know that the puzzle is becoming harder and harder to put together each day.”