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SVSU schools to close end of day Tuesday

Gov. Scott: Further measures are 'inevitable'

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All schools in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union will be closed at the end of the day on Tuesday, per an order from Gov. Phil Scott aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Scott announced Sunday that he would order closure of schools and cancellation of all school-related activities by Wednesday.

Katie West, public information coordinator for the SVSU, said the supervisory union has been planning for such an outcome since before the announcement was made.

"As the virus kind of swept throughout the world and the county and definitely the news, it has been something that's definitely been on our radar," she told the Banner on Monday.

Parents were alerted to the closure around 4 p.m. on Sunday, West said. The supervisory union emailed families, and also recommended its schools send out an alert call as well, she said.

On Monday morning, officials met with building principals to help develop a Continuity of Education plan, per Scott's directive, according to a statement from SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen.

"Although we do not have the details of this plan ready to share, we know that continued learning for all students is one of our top priorities," Culkeen said. "We have many teams working on this task to help bridge technological gaps in our community."

The plan will be submitted to the state by this Friday, and will be operational by Monday.

Another focus has been the daily distribution of free breakfast and lunch for students, which will be delivered via the supervisory union's bus service, Culkeen said.

More information will be shared when officials have more details, and more updates will be forthcoming.

Scott and other state officials emphasized that the closure decision was necessary to keep "ahead of the curve" in reducing the spread of COVID-19 at a press conference on Monday regarding the closure.

In a news release announcing the closure decision, Scott said that each district must have a Continuity of Education Plan that includes meal service for those who need it, and services for students with disabilities and special needs.

Districts must also ensure students have "trackable work" to do when schools are dismissed on Tuesday, and a remote learning plan that prepares for schools to be closed for a longer period, according to the release.

'We have to slow this spread down'

"It's important for Vermonters to note that additional [measures] are inevitable," Scott said at the press conference.

The decision to close schools was made in close consultation with both the Vermont Department of Health and the Vermont Agency of Education, Scott said.

The closures will last through April 6, but could go longer, according to the news release.

"We have to slow this spread down to bend the curve," Scott said. "I know, and I fully appreciate the challenges that closing schools will pose for Vermonters."

Just days ago, said Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine, officials agreed that closing schools was not yet necessary. But now, he said, it is.

"In the U.S, the virus has clearly been overtaking our efforts at containment," Levine said.

Last Friday, the Vermont Health Department had three positive tests for COVID-19. "Since then, in just three days, we ... are up to 12 positive tests," he said.

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According to department of health data, updated at 1 p.m. Monday, the state has had 12 positive cases, including four non-Vermonters, and 421 people have tested negative.

Two hundred seventy-four Vermonters are being monitored, and 143 have completed monitoring.

At least three of the four most recent cases appear to be the result of person-to-person spread, he said.

"Even these small numbers indicate that community transitioning has occurred," he said.

That's why implementing social distancing measures — like closing schools — is a powerful tool, he said.

"These are extremely difficult times for everyone, and they will not soon be over," he said.

But actions being taken on the state level, combined with personal actions by Vermonters, will help slow the spread of the coronavirus — yielding fewer deaths, and less opportunity to overwhelm the healthcare system.

Agency of Education

Heather Bouchey, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education, said the agency is quickly turning its operations toward continuity of education and services at the district level.

They have released guidance on child nutrition services, and more is forthcoming, she said.

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The agency's special education division is also working "as we speak" on guidance regarding remote learning, she said at the press conference.

"We are ready," she said. "We are here to help our districts as much as we can."

Officials will have much more information in the coming days, she said.

No student was required to attend school Monday or Tuesday if their parent or guardian would rather keep them home. But education professionals are expected to come in to help with school dismissal efforts.

In response to a question at the press conference Monday, Scott said that officials understand remote learning that relies on the internet might not be possible in every district.

"We're going to be creative, understanding that we don't have internet access everywhere," he said.

Bouchey said the remote learning response will be "largely contingent on the communities that we're talking about."'

"Many of our communities will likely be focusing on a combined online and paper, if you will, packet format," she said.

Her agency will be providing assistance to districts, keeping in mind their unique situations, she said.

"Our districts and schools know that they are required to make sure that all students have access to the materials and the instruction that will be taking place," she said.

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Childcare needs

The Continuity of Education Plan for each district must also include working with the state to provide district-based options that meet the childcare needs of healthcare workers and other Vermonters essential to the response, like EMS, fire and National Guard personnel, according to the release.

At Monday's press conference, Scott said the state officials are putting a plan in place to provide for childcare in these situations, and something may be in place in the next two days.

"At this point, we don't have it perfected, but we're working on the plan as we speak," he said.

Given that the coronavirus has led to the closing of daycare providers, the state is also considering how Vermonters who receive childcare subsidies would get that service when approved providers aren't open.

The state Agency of Human Services has set up an internal task force to look at such issues, and plans to set up a 24/7 hotline.

Those questions will be answered in the near future, said Mike Smith, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services.

"Using the subsidies, we're going to try to be as flexible as possible," he said.

Officials will make a decision on how those subsidies would be used, "I would say within the next 24 to 36 hours," Smith said.

Staff to be paid

Scott said the state has communicated to districts and superintendents that they expect all staff to be paid during the closures.

"It's about creativity and finding an approach that will work," Scott said.

Although that plan isn't fully developed, he said,"we've asked the superintendents to make sure that everyone is paid."

Under the governor's directive, schools will remain operational for administrators, teachers and staff to sustain essential services and to plan and implement continuity of education through remote learning, according to the release. The Vermont Department of Health has provided "social distancing" guidance that districts should use to ensure a healthy workplace.

On Friday, Scott declared a state of emergency to help the state cope with the growing outbreak of COVID-19, the Associated Press reported.

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for some, especially older people and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. Most people recover from the virus in a matter of weeks, as has happened in mainland China.

Scott's action came after leaders of the Vermont Legislature decided Friday to suspend the current session through at least March 24 due to concerns about the spread of the virus.

The Vermont Department of Health is advising Vermonters who are returning from Europe, the United Kingdom, Ireland, China, Iran or South Korea to call Health Department Epidemiology at 802-863-7240.

Those who are sick or concerned about their health are asked to contact their healthcare provider by phone, and not go to the hospital except in a life-threatening emergency.

Those with questions about COVID-19 can dial 2-1-1.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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