Alice Wiegers, 15, and Taylor Cutler, 16, work at Threads on Main Street in Bennington, and they are giving out masks and hand sanitizer with the Threads logo.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

A coalition of Vermont family physicians and pediatric specialists announced Tuesday it is urging “continued universal masking in schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and promote a healthy, safe, and productive school year.”

The group said although it agrees with the Scott administration’s recommendation to schools to require universal masking of students and staff to begin the school year, “we urge continued universal masking regardless of vaccination status or school vaccination rate for students and staff until those under 12 years of age have had the opportunity to be vaccinated and when epidemiologic data tells us it is safe to remove masks.”

The group includes the state chapter of the Vermont Medical Society, the Vermont Academy of Family Physicians, and the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital.

Most Vermont schools will be open this week, and only one small district consisting of one school has not adapted a mask requirement, Vermont Education Secretary Dan French said Tuesday.

The state recommended that schools require masks for all students and staff for the first 10 days and continue to require them for children under age 12 in schools with low vaccination rates, French said during the governor’s weekly coronavirus briefing.

“Next to vaccination, masking is one of our most important mitigation strategies. We know masks worked based on our experience with the virus last year,” he said.

Contact tracing will continue to be done in schools and could lead to times when classes or schools are closed, but hopefully for shorter periods of time than last year, French said. Vermont is adding volunteer surveillance testing of students this year. Last year, the state used surveillance testing of staff.

“This means we will identify more cases in schools, many of which would not have been found because they’re asymptomatic,” he said. “This is not a bad thing since it helps us stop the spread of the virus in our communities.”

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

Vermont became the first state this past weekend to reach 75 percent of children ages 12 to 17 to get at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, Scott said.

At his news conference Tuesday, Gov. Phil Scott called attacks on school boards over masking mandates inside schools “absolutely unacceptable.”

“School boards and superintendents implementing mask policies are simply doing what the state, at my direction, is recommending,” he said. “If they want to blame someone, blame me.”

Scott said it is “good news” that data does not justify a state of emergency, but without one, a unilateral mask mandate is not allowed.

School buses are also requiring passengers to wear masks regardless of vaccination status, in accordance with federal regulations.

The coalition said masking, in addition to helping prevent the spread of COVID-19, will also help prevent the spread of other common respiratory viruses that can mimic COVID’s signs and symptoms.

“With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Vermont, we are already seeing the effects on schools and classrooms only a few short days into the school year,” the group said. “Minimizing disruption to the school year is important for schools, families, and students.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.