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Vt. officials push to continue in-person learning

Published: Nov. 20, 2020 at 6:24 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 20, 2020 at 6:47 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - As the governor and Vt. education officials continue to prioritize in-person classes, rising COVID rates have some schools and parents rethinking after-holiday plans.

Many parents remain confused over how schools are supposed to respond to cases of the coronavirus and there are still questions about why schools are staying open when there are new limits on social gatherings. But state officials remain committed to as much in-person learning as possible. The governor even introduced two students who presented statewide school data they have collected to back up those claims.

“The chance to be in school with friends and getting the help they need from teachers, which is best-delivered face-to-face, is one of our top priorities,” said Governor Phil Scott Friday.

He says opening the schools this fall was and continues to be a huge win for students. About 70% of all middle and high schools are using a hybrid learning model and in-person instruction has essentially doubled since the beginning of the year in elementary schools.

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says even though there have been some cases in K-12 schools, they have not led to any large outbreaks. In most cases, only individual classrooms have closed, not entire schools.“ At least one community has opted to move their schools to remote learning. Though this is not a general public health recommendation at this time, we do certainly respect the considerations, such as staffing, that go into these very difficult decisions,” he said.

The state uses multiple metrics to determine when students would need to return to a fully-remote learning model. At this time, they say the switch is not needed. “We don’t have any indication that schools are a cause of transmission,” said Vermont Education Secretary Dan French. He says most of the cases we are seeing have been caused by social gatherings.

But with the holidays coming up and some people likely to go against the governor’s directives, it has some people worried. A student representative to the state’s board of education who spoke at the press conference about the need to keep schools open had a message for people planning to gather for Thanksgiving.

“For the people who are like ‘I just want to see my family for break,’ well we just want to be in school in person and so we have to learn to make those small sacrifices so that kids can go back to feeling protected while in school. I’m scared to go to school after Thanksgiving break. I don’t know that I want to go into that building, because I know for a fact there are going to be kids that are going to travel and get exposed and possibly bring it to school,” said Sabina Brochu.

Despite those concerns, Secretary French says he’s not persuaded to move all schools to remote learning for two weeks after Thanksgiving break. “I disagree, as I had said a couple of press conferences ago, with sort of a preemptive decision not based on data at this point,” he said.

French also says the daily health check students complete each day does not include a question regarding multi-household gatherings. Schools are not there to enforce guidance, only to provide education, but the Agency of Education is aware of the issue and it’s something they are working on.

This week the state also began surveillance testing for COVID-19 within schools. Dr. Levine says by the end of Friday, over half of all school staff members will be tested. That’s more than 9,500 tests. For the month of December, the state plans to test 25% of all schools across Vermont each week.

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