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MONTPELIER — All Bennington County schools will be part of the first wave of teacher vaccinations when shots are first distributed to educators on Monday, Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith announced during Friday’s COVID-19 briefing.

Smith also announced that registration for the first waves of vaccinations aimed at persons with high-risk medical conditions will begin Monday, with those 55 and older eligible to sign up Monday and those ages 16 and over set to sign up on Monday, March 15. A list of conditions covered in this band is available at healthvermont.gov/myvaccine.

Gov Phil Scott said he would like to see the state return to its age banding approach once high-risk Vermonters and educators have been addressed. But a decision on whether to do so has yet to be made, he said.

Scott also announced that vaccinated Vermonters will have more latitude to visit with each other, and with some non-vaccinated households as well, starting this weekend.

People who have been fully vaccinated can gather with other vaccinated individuals at their homes, and may also include one other household that has not been vaccinated, Scott said.

Noting that Friday was the one-year anniversary of the state’s first COVID-19 case being discovered in Bennington — he found that out while attending a Norwich University hockey game — Scott said he wanted to focus on “why I believe we should be optimistic about the road ahead.”

Just a year later, the state has three vaccines to administer and has reached 20 percent of residents over the age of 16 with at least one dose, Scott said.

“Within a month one-third of the eligible population could be vaccinated and all of the most vulnerable will have had the opportunity to be protected,” Scott said.

Smith said as of Friday, the state had vaccinated 113,865 people, with 52,631 receiving first doses and 61,234 getting first and second doses.

BROADBAND MONEY

The briefing, also featured a preview of federal aid slated for Vermont in the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill being voted on by the U.S. Senate on Friday.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., appearing by video said the state’s delegation had secured an additional $400 million over the $1.25 billion allocated in the House. That includes $100 million for broadband, $27 million in additional vaccine distribution assistance, and $50 million in homeowner assistance funds.

Leahy said he’d spoken with hundreds of Vermonters about the importance of achieving universal broadband access for the state, from families with students lacking adequate service for remote schooling to small businesses.

Regardless of party affiliation or background, residents “just want their state to be the way it was,” Leahy said. “They want to hug their children. They want to have cookouts with neighbors. They want to go to church or to their synagogue.”

A bill establishing a state authority to fund Communications Union Districts with revolving loan funds to build out the “last mile” of high-speed internet service to underserved communities has been submitted by the state House Energy and Technology Committee.

Scott spokesman Jason Maulucci said the administration is still waiting to see what emerges from Congress before committing to a course of action.

That said, “The House bill is one of several paths open on how we could administer this potential funding,” Maulucci said. “The good news is everyone agrees with the goal of building out universal, high-speed internet for all Vermonters.”

As the funding and its criteria come into focus, “we will work to ensure we are spending the money in the most effective way possible as we work to deliver on that goal,” he said.

IN-PERSON LEARNING

Smith said the Harwood Union, Springfield, Barre, North Country, Rutland City and Mill River schools are set to receive vaccines for educators starting Monday, in addition to all Bennington County schools.

Education Secretary Daniel French said a survey of staff across the state showed 92 percent of K-12 school staff and 81 percent of early child care staff were interested in receiving a vaccine. He said the Agency of Education working closely with the Agency of Human Services, and with each school district and child care facility, to schedule clinics.

The vaccinations will have “a significant impact on our ability to hold in-person instruction this spring," he said, allowing educators to start addressing the academic, social and emotional effects of the pandemic on children. 

Local school districts were pleased to hear the news.

“We’re excited for this opportunity for our school employees,” Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Superintendent Jim Culkeen said. “We believe that the vaccine will aid in our mission to continue having a safe and healthy school environment.”

"This is well deserved for the Arlington teachers who have dedicated themselves to in-person learning this year," Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union Superintendent William Bazyk said. "We have yet to miss a day in our elementary school and we have provided four days a week for our high school students. I am so happy the AOE has recognized this commitment and how quickly our teachers can be vaccinated."

"Data is beginning to emerge and it is not good on how our children have done during the school year. In-person learning is imperative," Bazyk added.

While teachers are eager to receive the vaccine, workers at the Vermont Veterans’ Home in Bennington have been less enthusiastic. Just 39 percent of direct care workers, and 60 percent of overall staff, at the facility in Bennington have been vaccinated as of Wednesday. 

Scott was asked what he thought about that, and about Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association, suggesting that “incentives and reassurances” to staff to increase vaccinations “would be a good place to start.”

“It’s disappointing that they aren’t taking advantage of this” on behalf of themselves and those they care for, Scott said.

“I have no interest in bargaining for this and offering an incentive,” he added. “The incentive is protect yourself and those around you.”

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik joined New England Newspapers as a reporter at The Berkshire Eagle in 1995. He worked for The AP in Boston, and at ESPN.com, before rejoining NENI in 2016. He was managing editor of all three NENI Vermont newspapers from 2017-19.

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