Vt. Education Officials Urge COVID Vaccines, Masks as Key to Back-to-School Safety

Leading Democrats are asking the Republican governor to consider going even farther when it comes to protecting against the spread of disease

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With back-to-school time here, Vermont's governor and education officials are reissuing recommendations of ways to keep kids, educators and staff safe from COVID-19 in school buildings.

The state sees increasing numbers of vaccinations as key to maintaining healthy, in-person instruction five days a week this school year.

"It's not something folks can take for granted in other parts of the country," noted Heather Bouchey, the state's deputy education secretary.

Leaders of the Vermont Legislature -- Democrats House Speaker Jill Krowinski of Burlington and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint of Windham County -- are calling on Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, to explore vaccine requirements for teachers and state employees.

Now that the FDA has given the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine its stamp of full approval, doctors hope that some vaccine skeptics will finally be convinced to get the shot. As NBC News medical contributor Dr. Kavita Patel explains, the approval is also likely to lead to more vaccine mandates by employers.

They also want the Scott administration to produce more info on how communities should respond to disease outbreaks in schools, and pointed out some other states do still have various types of mask mandates.

"We have the tools available to protect ourselves, and any step we can take to prevent someone from being hospitalized or succumbing to this virus is worth taking," Krowinski wrote in a statement Tuesday.

"I'm grateful the Speaker is starting this important discussion and hopeful that the Administration will work with us to continue to provide the clear guidance and support that we have all relied upon up to this point in the pandemic," Balint said in a separate statement Tuesday.

Scott countered that Vermont is not in a declared state of emergency, so he really can't lay down strict pandemic orders on how communities choose to operate their schools.

For now, school pandemic policies are largely falling to local boards and superintendents.

"You can disagree with their decisions, but it is not okay to threaten or intimidate them," Bouchey said of school boards, superintendents, and other local officials involved in setting and carrying out local policies -- including around wearing masks. "And threats of violence are never acceptable."

With Gov. Charlie Baker leaving mask mandates up to school districts, parents are sparring at school board meetings.

The state's strong recommendation to districts is that everyone wear masks in schools for at least the first two weeks of the academic year, then, once 80% of eligible kids are fully vaccinated against COVID, they can drop the face coverings.

Unvaccinated people should continue wearing masks, Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine has said.

"For students under 12 who are currently ineligible for the vaccine, we're asking districts to mandate masking until they're approved to receive the vaccine and are fully vaccinated," Scott added.

While Vermont has seen rising numbers of COVID-19 infections lately, the state's data modeling chief, Mike Pieciak, said Tuesday the rate of growth in infections is now slowing. He also said Vermont has the lowest hospitalization rate in the country, which the Scott administration attributes to the state's high uptake of vaccines.

The transition from summer school is always tough for kids, but this year may be especially challenging as students return to in-person learning after a year away. Susan Tran chats with parenting expert Cynthia Kriegman about how to prepare children for the change.

Finley Shawver, 12, of Westford, received his first dose of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday at a pop-up clinic in Fairfax administered by the Vermont National Guard.

"It protects you, and protects others," said Shawver, whose mother told NECN her son had a say in getting the vaccine -- and firmly wanted to.

Shawver said he feels safer returning to school now that he has his first vaccine dose and an appointment for his second.

Scott urged Vermonters to check out this list from the Vermont Department of Health of locations around the state where they can get themselves or their eligible kids vaccinated.

Bouchey offered other back-to-school advice to districts, telling anyone who's not feeling well they should stay home from school or go home ASAP. She noted masks don't need to be worn outdoors, and said people should consider getting tested for COVID, regardless of vaccination status.

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