MONTPELIER — Mandatory masks for students and teachers, health screenings at the bus stop, assigned seats on the bus and plenty of cleaning and disinfecting are all part of the plan to bring students back to school buildings for the start of the 2020-21 school year, according to guidance issued by the state Agency of Education.
What educators, students and parents should also prepare for is the likelihood that things could change in the face of a fluid situation, Education Secretary Daniel French said Thursday.
"We're going to have to have flexibility," French said, adding that educators know that future outbreaks of the virus are a possibility. "Districts will have to move among and between dispositions to manage outbreaks or just to manage logistic challenges."
The guidance, developed by French, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine and a panel of 17 educators, pediatricians, psychologists and state officials, sets the framework for a fall return with social distancing and precautions in place, and regular testing of students and staff for coronavirus. It was published Wednesday, a week after French outlined the general concepts at a daily COVID-19 briefing held by Gov. Phil Scott.
When schools were emptied of students and teachers in March, it was to prevent the rapid spread of the virus and keep the state's healthcare system from being overrun. Now, with the spread of COVID-19 largely slowed and more testing in place to contain outbreaks, the state is looking to a model where testing, adherence to public health guidelines and common-sense prevention measures will allow for in-person learning to begin anew.
It's needed and important, French said.
"We were unable to do a lot of benchmark assessment to a large extent when we were doing remote learning," French said, adding that's most important for the early grades, where the focus is on language acquisition and literacy. "That's a critical part for us. It's part of the rationale for why we need to get back and begin to do these kinds of assessments."
There's a desire among teachers to get back as well, said Don Tinney, president of the 12,000-member Vermont NEA.
"We have an enormous amount of work to do. Vermont educators want to get back to schools more than anyone or just as badly as anyone," Tinney said. "But it has to be done in a way that is safe for everyone."
When French first presented the guidance, masks were mandatory for staff and encouraged for students. But French had made clear at the time that was not the final word on the matter. Sure enough, the published guidance made masks mandatory for all, with health- and age-based exceptions for some students.
"The recommendation from the working group changed to what you see in the published version," said Ted Fisher, the agency's director of communications and legislative affairs.
The general concept, French said, is to test students and staff to the extent possible each day before they enter the building and interact, so that the school community can operate in person with as little risk as possible — and kids can be kids to the extent possible. "If we can maintain discipline around the point of contact, we'll have greater flexibility inside the school buildings," he said.
At the local level, Randi Lowe, the incoming superintendent of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union in northern Bennington County, said the guidance is welcomed and will be used immediately in planning for welcoming students and teachers back to buildings.
"There's a lot of information [in the guidance] that gives our task force groups a really clear starting point," Lowe said.
As a good part of the guidance relies upon testing at bus stops and suggested monitoring of students in transit, there are concerns that finding workers to fill those roles might be difficult. Districts throughout Vermont have struggled for years to fill driver openings.
But Tinney warned against asking drivers to take on too many critical tasks.
"We have to have additional personnel," he said. "We cannot expect school bus drivers to drive the bus in a very safe way and manage student behavior and screen students for health concerns. That's just impossible."
The guidance provides a number of exceptions, including for children not yet old enough to safely put on and take off masks, for students with medical or behavioral reasons for not wearing facial coverings, while eating, or while outdoors where proper social distancing can take place.
Every school district and independent school "should establish a COVID-19 coordinator to establish, review and implement health and safety protocols," the guidance says. That person "should be a school nurse or other health professional qualified to interpret guidelines and ensure they are implemented to the best standard of practice."
In a forward to the guidance, French and Levine said the education community has worked hard and learned a great deal since the pandemic hit in March.
"The lessons we have learned from these experiences indicate that we need to resume in-person instruction of students as soon as safely possible, while continuing to strengthen our Continuity of Learning systems and our ability to be nimble and move quickly to respond to future outbreaks of the virus," French and Levine said.
The guidance sets out three tiers for operation, with step 1 being online instruction, step 2 being in-person instruction with enhanced physical distancing, and step 3 providing in-person instruction with distancing measures.
Vermont's schools will open at step 2, with daily health checks consisting of questions and a temperature scan for each student when they get to school or get on the bus.
Students who indicate they're not feeling well or have a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher "must be returned to their parent/caregiver as soon as possible," the guidance says. "[Schools] should work with school nurses to determine a plan for when a student appears unwell or becomes ill at school."
All of this preparation will cost money, and the Legislature is working on providing funding from Vermont's $1.25 billion share of the federal CARES Act. As of Wednesday, the state Senate had voted to approve a $50 million package setting aside $41 million for pre-K-12 education, $6.5 million for COVID-19 specific heating, ventilation and cooling improvements in public schools via Efficiency Vermont, and $1.5 million for the "historic academy" independent schools accepting public tuition, including Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, and other accepted independent schools.
Tinney hopes the Agency of Education will continue to rely on input from education stakeholders as the guidance continues to evolve.
"It's the very beginning of this process. I think people have to keep that part in mind," he said. "These are guidelines that focus primarily on protecting the health of our students and school staff. But it is a beginning and we'll continue to have questions."