MONTPELIER — Vermont schools will have a little extra time to prepare for the challenges of reopening this fall. At Tuesday's twice weekly press conference on the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Phil Scott announced he will issue an order requiring schools to start by Sept. 8, giving districts an extra week or two to prepare for operational changes.
Districts will decide whether to offer remote learning, in-person instruction or a mix of the two. State officials agreed that a plan for all districts would not address specific needs for each school.
"I understand the need for education and the need for school staff, parents and children to ease into this and gain confidence," Scott said. "None of this is ideal. It's our reality."
Scott said he thinks Vermont is better situated to reopen schools because of how successful citizens have been in limiting the spread of the virus.
State officials had no data yet on how many retirements or resignations might be coming related to reopening schools for in-person classes. They will continue to watch what's happening in the rest of the country and within the region as districts roll out reopening plans, said Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine.
"I believe we're at point in our response which allows us to bring our children back to school in a carefully considered and safe way," he said. "We've reached a point of viral suppression that allows us to open schools comfortably."
Younger children are less likely to transmit the virus or develop severe cases, Levine said, adding that students 9 and younger benefit most from in-person instruction. He encouraged districts to plan to provide every student with a high-quality education, allow for flexibility, and explore and share innovative solutions.
But Levine also acknowledged the likelihood of clusters and limited outbreaks. He said public health protocols, including testing and contact tracing, are in place to help in such situations.
Dr. Rebecca Bell, who works in Pediatric Critical Care at University of Vermont Children's Hospital, pointed to a statement issued Monday by the American Academy of Pediatrics Vermont Chapter calling for schools to prioritize in-person attendance for pre-K-5 classes and students with special needs.
"Schools in Vermont support the academic, social and developmental needs of children, help address food insecurity, and provide mental health services," the chapter said, adding that data shows children are less likely to become infected with COVID-19 and severe diseases, and countries with low prevalence rates for the disease have successfully opened schools without outbreaks.
Schools in Vermont will stay safe if positivity rates in the communities remain low, Bell said. She recommended the use of masks, keeping physical distance and staying home when sick — guidance the state has provided to the school districts.
Vermont Education Secretary Dan French said schools will be required to perform daily health inspections on all students and staff. He suggested the potential for schools or certain grades to close at times due to lack of staff or bus drivers.
The Agency of Education will limit any new guidance on reopening schools, French said. He anticipates guidance on school sports and special education will be released soon.
"It is important that we strive to keep schools open," he said. "Let's take advantage of the time to make sure the next school year will be as successful as possible."
Schools will have access to additional resources through federal coronavirus relief funding to help with reopening, French said. He anticipates money could be used for hiring staff or substitute teachers.
Scott said he hasn't received any pushback to the Sept. 8 date nor has he heard any proposals to provide hazard pay to teachers and school staff.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at email@example.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.