BENNINGTON — Mount Anthony middle and high schools still have work to do to reach the state-mandated 80 percent vaccination mark that would allow the student body to remove its masks inside both school buildings.
Superintendent James Culkeen reported the high school is at 57 percent vaccinated, with an additional 200 vaccinations needed to reach the 80 percent threshold; he gave the report during the Mount Anthony Union School District Board meeting Wednesday night at the SVSU’s central office.
The middle school is at 48 percent and needs an additional 150 vaccinations to reach 80 percent, he said. Once students ages 5 to 11 are eligible to be vaccinated, that percentage will drop to about 37 percent at the middle school, with 270 additional vaccinations required, he added.
“We have a long way to go to get to 80 percent,” Culkeen said. “It could be months before we attain that.”
Eligible children and young adults remain the lowest-percentage vaccinated portion of the state’s population, according to data from the Department of Health. The percentages for people receiving at least one dose are 75.8 percent of children 12 to 15, 78.8 percent of 16 and 17 year-olds, and just 63.3 percent of adults ages 18 to 29.
For the entire state, 84.4 percent of eligible people have received at least one dose of a vaccine.
In his report, Culkeen said there have been 10 cases of COVID-19 reported at the high school, including two reported Wednesday, and seven cases at the middle school, with one reported Wednesday.
According to the state Health Department, as of Tuesday, the high school reported zero cases in the past seven days and three since Aug. 23, while Mount Anthony Union Middle School reported zero cases in the past seven days and four overall since Aug. 23.
The Health Department’s accounting of COVID cases does not include people in the learning community who were not at school during their infectious period. “In these cases, someone may have been exposed to the virus either in or outside of school, but there would not have been an opportunity to spread the virus to other people in the learning community,” the state website says.
Board Chairman Tim Holbrook asked if the school has made it mandatory for athletes to get vaccinated. “There’s nothing mandatory, but among teams the vaccination rate is very high,” Principal Tim Payne said.
Earlier Wednesday, Payne, reporting to the board’s education committee, said the start of the school year has largely been positive — but that the COVID pandemic and its fallout remain challenges.
“The vast majority of students are happy to be back in the building,” Payne said. But there are students who are struggling, he said, adding that some behaviors — especially a lack of consistent mask-wearing — require correction and reinforcement.
“The vast majority of students are showing up, engaging, polite and respectful,” he said.
On other issues, Payne said one of his goals for the coming year is studying whether the high school should move away from its current “long block” class schedule. It poses a number of challenges, he said:
• The class time of 85 minutes “is limiting in a school day,” Payne said, especially for recovery specialists working one-on-one with students.
• That same class time does not mesh well with the two-hour class time at Southwest Tech, meaning fewer students can access those vocational classes.
• Last and not least, it produces a sizable crowd for the first lunch period, straining the cafeteria’s capacity. The school has been creative by letting students eat in the courtyard, Payne said, but winter weather will take that option away soon.
At the middle school, new Principal Chris Maguire is also contemplating whether the master schedule should change. At present, it includes a study hall, and “12, 13 and 14 year olds don’t sit and be super productive and self-directed ... they find that to be a challenge,” he said.
Maguire also said he’s focusing on the “security, health and well-being of staff” who have been through a lot the past two school years. “We need to make sure they’re taken care of and taking care of themselves,” he said.
At the start of the meeting, Dina Altman, an attorney for the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, responded to concerns voiced by Mary Gerisch of Bennington that the board’s handling of the settlement between the district and former Mount Anthony Union High School Principal Stephen Nixon might have run afoul of the state’s open meeting law. Gerisch was a party to a complaint brought against the MAU board in 2018 over the open meeting law during the principal hiring process.
Atwood said Gerisch raised a valid concern about how the board’s motion to enter executive session to discuss the settlement was worded. According to Atwood, that action could have been broken down into two motions rather than combined, as the board did.
As to whether the board needed to announce who was attending the executive session, Atwood said the statute does not require that level of notification.
Atwood also said that the settlement’s nondisclosure provision is “subject to analysis” for a Freedom of Information Act request.