A first-grader at Shaftsbury Elementary drew this artwork in December 2020 as a way for kids to remember the keys to staying safe during the coronavirus pandemic — washing hands, staying arm’s length apart and wearing a mask.

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Vermont’s COVID-19 numbers — from caseload to vaccinations to hospitalization rates — continue to move in the right direction, prompting Gov. Phil Scott to suggest that the state’s mask mandate in schools could be lifted as soon as later this month.

“We’re contemplating that,” the governor said at his weekly press conference. “The sooner we can get people, kids in particular, back to normal — and that’s without masks — the better.”

Scott said his administration meets regularly to make sure Vermont’s COVID policy is up to date with the current science. That meeting is set for Feb. 28, at which time the mask mandate is likely to be re-visited. While not committing to revoking the school mask requirement, the governor noted other states — including Oregon and California — have lifted mask mandates despite having caseloads higher than Vermont’s.

He said he recently spoke with a mother whose two young children had never attended school without a mask, and therefore had not seen their friends’ faces or expressions. “I thought, ‘How sad is that?’”

“If the numbers continue (to decline), we’ll have this discussion and determine the path forward,” he said.

Education Secretary Dan French said he hopes we can all lower the level of COVID-driven anxiety among schoolchildren. French said kids and adults have been on a rollercoaster with ups and downs linked to the virus.

“But we do control how we perceive it, and we do convey anxiety to children,” he said. Lowering that anxiety level is a step toward normalcy for our kids, he added. French also noted that staff in schools have asked for antigen tests for themselves, not just students, and those tests will be delivered to schools in the near future. That testing will be voluntary.

Michael Pieciak, commissioner of financial regulation, said Vermont’s seven-day average of COVID cases has dropped to under 400, the lowest point since pre-omicron mid-December. He said hospital admissions for COVID are down 14 percent over last week, and intensive care cases are down 17 percent. Outbreaks in long-term care facilities, which had remained high, are also starting to come down. And while 558 Vermonters have died from COVID-19, 13 so far in February, the death rate is also expected to decline going forward.

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“Things continue to move in the right direction,” agreed Scott.

A focus on improved cell service

In fact, he said, the news on the COVID front is so good that he decided to focus on a different topic for his weekly press conference — expanding cell service throughout the state. Scott said he has asked lawmakers to approve a plan to use $51 million in federal COVID relief funds to locate and build 100 new cell towers to ensure all areas of the state — particularly hard-hit rural areas that lack service — are able to use cellphones and have broadband access.

“Cell coverage is a necessity, and it’s an area where we must do better,” he said. “It’s not a luxury; it’s an expectation.”

{span}Public Service Commissioner June Tierney said cell and broadband service is vital in guaranteeing rural Vermonters have expanded access to telehealth care; those without transportation can attend virtual mental health counseling sessions; road crews can track conditions in bad weather; drivers in accidents can reach 911 for help; students can access remote learning; companies can conduct business, and tourists can book trips; and much more. {/span}

Tierney said the state conducted a study to gauge cell availability along various roads across Vermont. Among the findings, 62 percent of roadways have marginal cell service, 10 percent lack any signal, and 70 percent offer either AT&T or Verizon, which is why some people carry two phones, she said. Planning for the new towers will be conducted with public input, she added.

“This program will have robust community engagement for sites,” Tierney said. “This will happen before sites are selected.”


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