Vermont Unveils Guidelines for Schools, Sports this Fall

Vermont education officials released updated school guidelines and safety protocols for fall sports Tuesday

Gov. Phil Scott promised weekly updates over the next month in an attempt to ease concerns as Vermont unveils detailed plans for students to be back in their classrooms and on the field this fall.

“Many of our kids are not doing okay - think about that for just a moment,” Scott said. “I truly believe if we don't provide a way to get those kids back to school, we'll see the ramifications for years to come. That's why this is so important to me. While our case trends show we can do it, I'm going to continue to advocate for it.”

Vermont education officials touted the state's testing and tracing capabilities as they presented changes to their back-to-school guidelines, including a push for in-person K-5 learning, reduced distance restrictions and at-home symptom screenings.

The state initially recommended that staff members conduct questionnaires and take temperatures checks before students entered the building, but they are now asking parents and students to do that on their own.

The updated guidelines also include a reduced distance requirement between younger students, from six feet to a range of three to six feet, citing "an expanding body of scientific evidence," which Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French said continues to support the finding that younger children are less likely to transmit the disease.

Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals' Association, shared key points of phased guidance for sports programs after Scott announced Friday that all fall sports can resume when schools reopen on Sept. 8.

"Fall sports will look different than they have in the past," Nichols said. "Our goal is to make sure as many athletes as possible can participate in their sports."

Teams will be allowed to hold official fall practices, conditioning activities and skill development when school starts in September, according to Nichols. They will also be able to scrimmage within their own team or program, but not against other schools at first.

Scrimmages and other competitions between schools will be permitted in a later phase with stringent requirements including facial coverings for all players, coaches, officials, staff, and spectators at all times, including during active play. That phase is expected to begin about two weeks after school starts, Nichols said, with the hope of interscholastic events starting up by Sept. 21.

Outdoor sporting events hosted by schools will have to adhere to the state's event size restrictions, which are currently capped at 150 people.

A detailed version of the protocols will be released later this week with specific restrictions based on the individual sport, according to Nichols, and guidance for winter sports is expected to be published by Oct. 15.

"I acknowledge and understand that there's some anxiety and anxiety among school employees and parents - and appropriately," Scott said. "So we'll be dedicating time each week to give you an update on our work to support schools, teachers, parents and kids for a safe return this year."

Patty Kelso, the Vermont Department of Health's Epidemiologist for Infectious Disease, described three strategies that officials are prioritizing to prepare for back to school; decreasing the risk of people with coronavirus going into schools, mitigating potential transmission among staff and students by quickly identifying cases and putting containment procedures in place.

"Even though we have the lowest number of cases in the nation, we are likely to see some cases and clusters connected to schools," Scott said. "There will also be false alarms and rumors that spark fear even if no cases are found. Adjusting to this may be difficult for some, but we want to remind Vermonters that we as a state, nation, and across the world know so much more about this virus today than we did in March."

Schools will be required to have containment procedures, or action plans for cases of coronavirus in the classroom. The state is currently developing guidelines to help schools plan how to prevent further spread and communicate with the entire community. The decision to close a school or a certain classroom for in person instruction will be made on a case-by-case basis.

Vermont's Agency of Education is planning to release the full updated health and safety guidelines for reopening K-12 schools later Tuesday, French said. Additional guidance on social-emotional health among students will be released sometime this week, according to Deputy Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey.

Schools in the state are working on plans to reopen under three possible models: full remote learning, full in-class learning and a hybrid of the two.

"Unlike many states across the country, the conditions of Vermont supports the return of in-person instruction because of our low prevalence of COVID and our testing and tracing capability," Scott said. "But having said that, it's still important to recognize that things will be different and this won't be easy."

Vermont had a total of 1,462 cases of coronavirus as of Monday. The death toll remains at 58.

Scott was asked Tuesday why he held the coronavirus press conference on Vermont's primary day, when voters were deciding on contests for governor, lieutenant governor, the U.S. House and many legislative races. Scott, a popular incumbent, is being challenged for his party's nomination by four lesser-known candidates.

"From my standpoint, we've been holding them on Tuesdays and the pandemic comes first. My first responsibility is for the public safety of Vermonters," Scott said. "I believe that Vermonters will understand. I have not actively campaigned, nor fund raised. I have not even brought up as a campaign during any of these press conferences. I've only reacted to questions that have come out come about."

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