MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday renewed his plea for Vermont schools to let students - particularly elementary school students K through 5 - return to school full time next month.
Scott, at one of his bi-weekly press conferences, said it is best for students to be in school working directly with their teachers, and it would help their parents as well.
Scott said he had trouble sleeping at night worrying about Vermonters who are stuck with a lack of childcare and not able to return to their jobs, as well as students who were "falling through the cracks" because of the lack of attention from their teachers.
Elementary school students up to the age of 10 will also be able to get closer to their fellow students and teachers safely, as the state's guidance on social distancing was reduced from 6 feet to 3 feet, although the state said 6 feet is still preferable.
The governor's decision drew an immediate response from the Vermont-NEA, the state's largest teacher's union.
"We are increasingly frustrated with the inconsistent and seemingly changing `guidance' from the administration," said Don Tinney, an English teacher who serves as the president of Vermont-NEA. "Instead of joining us in an orderly, phased-in, statement approach, he has chosen to allow districts to make critical decisions on their own. "
It was also announced that fall sports would not include full-contact football for Vermont's high school students, and that the Vermont Principals Association is studying substituting some kind of alternative football, which was described as "7 on 7 touch football."
While football is officially banned, other fall sports are not but mask wearing is required, except for cross country running, officials said. It was estimated that 10,000 Vermont high school students participate in sports.
Student athletes may start practicing on the first day of school - Sept. 8.
In addition to the latest update on school reopening, Scott said he would propose to the Legislature that some of the state's CARES funding be used to supplement the unemployment insurance since the federal $600 a week supplement has been discontinued.
Scott said there are about 40,000 Vermonters still on unemployment, and that he would proposed a $100 a week supplement, which would amount to between $4 million and $5 million a week. He said he expected Congress would act to address the problem, but he said in the interim he was working to add the $100 a week to the Vermont unemployment check.
Scott and other administration officials said while the Agency of Education had issued "guidance" on the issue of reopening schools, the final decision rested with the local school districts.
Most schools in Windham County have opted for the so-called "hybrid" plan, where students receive two days a week of in-person instruction, and the rest of the week is handled remotely.
The governor defended his decision to hold his regularly scheduled - and televised - press conference on Primary Day, saying there was important news to share about the coronavirus pandemic.
Dan French, secretary of the Agency of Education, said he had no figures yet on how many parents were opting to keep their children home rather than send them to school. Parents have several options, including home-schooling, and various forms of remote learning.
French said one reason the Agency of Education endorsed the hybrid model for schools was because of staffing concerns, that school districts would not be able to fully staff their classrooms. He said he had no data on how many teachers were not going to return to the classroom because of the virus.
Scott said there could be "ramifications for years to come" if students don't return to the classroom, and that postponing the traditional classroom experience could result in lasting educational harm.
Dr. Patsy Kelso, the state's epidemiologist, said it was "Mission Critical" to get Vermont schools back open.
Kelso said the state was establishing protocols in the event of a COVID19 outbreak in a school or classroom.
The first step would be to determine the "close contacts" of the infected student, and wouldn't necessarily mandate the closure of that class or school, she said.
Contact Susan Smallheer at firstname.lastname@example.org.