With just three weeks until school starts, most districts in Vermont are planning for a hybrid reopening model, combining in-person and remote instruction.
"Kids will have been away from school for more than five months when they return in September," Gov. Phil Scott said in a Tuesday briefing. "We don't know the full impact, but what we do know is not all families have been able to manage this since March, which means the inequity that existed before schools closed has likely gotten worse."
Public schools in Vermont are slated to start by Sept. 8, with full support for in-person learning from Vermont Public Health Commissioner Mark Levine and his team of health professionals.
"The trends we've been seeing in our state for some time now continue to tell us that it's the right time to bring our children back to school," Levine said.
"I realized many educators school staff, parents and kids are nervous. Believe me, I get it," Scott said. "The bottom line is, we wouldn't be moving forward with reopening schools without their OK."
Of the approximate 60 school districts in the state, 49 have submitted reopening plans. As of Friday, 46 of those 49 plans involve some version of hybrid learning, with just three choosing to proceed exclusively online.
Hybrid learning is taking several forms among the districts, with 75% opting for two days a week in-person and three days of remote learning, while 20% will have four days of in-person instruction.
Officials will collect monthly data on hybrid learning to better understand the patterns of access and opportunity, according to Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French.
There will be obstacles ahead, Scott noted, like staffing levels, which may limit much in person instruction that districts can offer, or the ability to go fully remote. Scott said the state will be offering solutions for those two issues moving forward, but immediately addressed another concern - child care.
Scott recommended spending almost $12 million in federal funds to expand child-care capacity in Vermont.
"We know we need more childcare capacity - and we need it quickly," Scott said.
Through an executive order, Scott is modifying state regulations to allow registered family childcare homes to be reimbursed for more than four hours of care on school days. Officials believe the $4.8 million investment will add about 3,000 spots.
Additionally, the Scott Administration is developing regional childcare hubs for school-aged children on remote learning days, expected to cost $7 million. Appropriate business and municipal facilities will operate like summer camps, from a regulatory standpoint, to avoid the red tape and get them up and running quickly. The measure is expected to make room for 7,000 children.
The Department of Children and Families will also expedite administrative processing and increase administrative flexibility for applications seeking to become a regulated childcare program. The effort calls for a $220,000 community lead grant to work with community partners.
Scott also presented his budget proposal Tuesday, which he said does not include new taxes or fees.
"Just like families are doing, we're setting priorities, trying to do things smarter and better while making some difficult decisions," Scott said. "The bottom line is, we're not spending more than we're taking in. And we're living within our means."
The state has been using federal relief dollars "wisely," Scott said, to help manage the coronavirus crisis, help employers survive and maintain programs serving the most vulnerable. Thus, he is not cutting any essential programs or tapping into the state's rainy day fund.
Health officials reported a total of 1,530 COVID-19 cases Tuesday. Vermont's death toll remains at 58. Officials are predicting a slight uptick in cases over the next few weeks as college students return to campus.
The state has implemented quarantine and testing requirements for higher education institutions. Hundreds of results have come in as colleges test students upon entry, Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said Friday, and thousands more are expected. Some tests have come back positive, Levine said, and in one case, a student tested positive prior to leaving their home state.