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Gov. Scott: School will return this fall

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MONTPELIER — Vermont schools, pre-K through Grade 12, will be open this fall, Gov. Phil Scott pledged Wednesday.

Saying that schools were important to the state's children both educationally and socially, Scott and Education Secretary Dan French said guidelines for opening the schools will be released next week.

Keeping students, their parents and teachers safe is of paramount concern, and students will be screened daily even before they get on the bus, they said.

Every day, students will be asked questions about potential exposure to the coronavirus, any symptoms and have their temperature taken, French said. By doing it before kids get on the school bus, potential contamination and exposure to other students will be minimized. Staff will also be tested daily.

Individual school districts will have leeway on how to conduct the tests, French noted, since some bus drivers are district employees while others work for transportation contractors.

"It is vital to the well-being of our students that we endeavor to reopen our school so we can address their social, emotional and educational needs, while at the same time getting back to the normal routines and community activities that characterize our way of life in Vermont," French said.

Scott and French said Vermont coronavirus statistics showed that while the virus was present in Vermont, it was not spreading, and testing showed it was at low levels.

Since Scott ordered Vermont schools closed in mid-March due to the public health emergency, a tremendous amount has been learned about the virus and how to identify and contain it, he said.

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One guideline, French said, included that faculty and staff will be required to wear masks at school; it will be optional for students, but encouraged.

Schools will be prepared to shut down if there is a large outbreak in the school community, but Scott said that was possible because of the state's emphasis on testing and contact tracing.

And, French said, the state is still working to strengthen its distance learning programs and broadband access for students in the event that individual schools have to shut down again.

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He said it won't be until students are back in the classroom for in-person teaching that the state will be able to assess exactly how much students have lost due to the school shutdown this spring.

The costs to the schools for reopening is estimated at $40 million, based on a nationwide study, French said. That comes down to about $500 per pupil for additional staffing and resources to reopen the schools safely, including protective equipment and cleaning.

French said that he and school officials - from the Vermont National Education Association to the superintendents, principals and school boards associations - are working to come up with a plan to have schools open "by Labor Day."

The announcement by Scott drew an immediate response from the 13,000-member Vermont-NEA, the state's largest teachers' union, saying not enough research and planning had been done to justify an announcement.

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"It is unfortunate that Gov. Phil Scott and Education Secretary Dan French chose to make this announcement before the real hard work of planning and preparation has been completed," Vermont-NEA President Don Tinney said in a statement. "We have one chance to get this right, and to get it right takes time. Again, there is no place where educators would rather be than in school, teaching and caring for students. But without concrete, health- and science-based protocols that must be followed by every school district, today's announcement adds even more pressure to folks doing this critical planning."

The announcement about the reopening of Vermont schools came at the same time that Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the state Department of Health, gave an update of the outbreak centered in the Chittenden County city of Winooski, where a total of 74 COVID-19 cases have recently been diagnosed. State officials attribute the outbreak to a close community of families, which news reports say include "New Americans," or immigrants.

State officials said that through testing and contact tracing they felt they had the outbreak under control. State health officials have refused to identify the community, citing confidentiality. Of the 74 new cases, 80 percent are in Winooski, with the others in Burlington and other Chittenden County communities.

Levine said the age of the people included in the Winooski outbreak ranged from 82 to one year, with about 40 percent children. No one has been hospitalized, and no one has died. Many of those showed no symptoms, Levine said.

To date, Levine said, Vermont has had 1,095 confirmed cases, with 55 deaths, a number that has remained unchanged for two weeks.

In addition to the news about schools reopening in the fall, the Vermont Community Foundation, on behalf of the McClure Foundation, announced it would offer each member of the Class of 2020 in Vermont the opportunity to take a class this fall at Community College of Vermont expense-free. There are an estimated 7,000 seniors in the state, French said.

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