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Each month the Agency of Education conducts a survey of schools to measure the amount of in-person, remote, and hybrid learning offered to our students. We report on the data collected at one of Governor Scott’s regular COVID-19 media briefings.

The level of in-person and hybrid instruction has remained stable since schools reopened last fall. This reflects the hard work of school employees, and the fact that while schools have seen COVID-19 cases among students and staff, we’ve been able to contain them and keep schools operating safely. In fact, the rate of cases in schools has been significantly lower than the number of cases in the general population.

Here is the good news: relatively low virus rates in Vermont communities and effective response to cases have allowed about 30 percent of our students to go to school in-person every day. This is the goal we have for every student.

Fifty percent of our students have a hybrid schedule, which means they are in-person some days and remote on others. And 20 percent are in fully remote learning.

When we break the data out by grade level, it tells a different story.

At the elementary level, around 50 percent are in-person. This has remained unchanged from October through January.

The trends have remained constant for the other grades as well, but unfortunately the amount of in-person is significantly lower. For example, only about 20 percent of middle school instruction has been in-person each month. High school in-person instruction is about half that.

The lower rates of in-person instruction at the middle and high school levels are probably related to the more stringent distancing requirements at these grades — 6 feet at middle and high school vs. 3 feet in grades K-6 — but we need to acknowledge that we need to do better for these students if we are going to be successful in supporting their academic progress and their social and emotional health. This could mean reducing the minimum distancing requirement to 3 feet for all grades, keeping in place the other mitigation measures that we’ve shown work in Vermont schools.

As Governor Scott noted in his inaugural address, this is an area in need of improvement because we know there are significant impacts — academically, socially, and emotionally — related to remote learning.

Our teachers and administrators are doing incredible work to mitigate this, but the realities of remote learning — and the personal connection and hands-on experiences that just aren’t possible remotely mean that remote learning is just not an equal substitute for in-person learning. In fact, not only are too many kids falling behind academically, but inequality is also growing, and healthcare data shows that our children’s mental health is deteriorating as well.

This is something we need to address, in collaboration with the health experts, school administrators, teachers and staff. And as we consider what’s best for our kids, I think many can agree we need to get more of them back into the classroom as soon as possible.

Each week the state conducts voluntary surveillance testing in about 25 percent of our schools, giving every school employee the opportunity to be tested for COVID-19 once per month.

The results from the most recent testing continue to show adults in schools have a much lower positivity rate than the general population. Of the 29,371 tests to date, only 47 cases were identified. This translates into a positivity rate of 0.16 percent, which is much lower than the state’s overall positivity rate.

These test results are a good indicator that schools are operating very safely — and testing helps us catch cases early and contain spread. Our teachers and staff deserve a great deal of credit for these results. Still, we have cases in schools. There have been small outbreaks. And, even as vaccination increases, the reality is that we will be managing COVID-19 cases in schools well into the future, much like we do the seasonal flu each year.

Our experience and data give us confidence that — if educators and public health officials make it a priority — we can safely return more students to full in-person instruction before the end of this school year.

In the weeks ahead, all Vermonters who the science shows are at higher risk of hospitalization and death — those over 65 and with certain underlying conditions — will have access to the vaccine. Already, with many elderly Vermonters vaccinated, we are seeing hospitalizations and fatalities decline significantly — signaling the end to this emergency is approaching.

The fact is, there is no state in the country better positioned to fully reopen its education system than Vermont. And getting kids back in school every day is an essential step in helping them recover from the educational, social, and emotional impacts of this pandemic. This is another area where our response to this emergency can lead the nation.

Dan French is a former classroom teacher, principal, superintendent and is currently Vermont’s Secretary of Education.


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