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With schools reopening, state takes wait and see approach

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MONTPELIER — State officials are confident that the systems they have built in response to the COVID-19 pandemic will prevent the spread of the virus in schools as they reopen this week.

"By far, we are the safest state in the nation," said Gov. Phil Scott, during his Tuesday news conference.

Scott admitted that there probably will be cases of the virus popping up in the state's schools, but he believes the state has shown it is capable of responding quickly and stopping any spread.

Daniel French, the secretary of the Vermont Department of Education, noted that Vermont's investments in testing and contact tracing have limited outbreaks in the state. He also credited officials from the state and school districts, as well as teachers, administrators and parents for doing all the work necessary to open the schools in a limited manner.

"Now we shift our focus from preparation to addressing the educational needs of all of our students," said French.

Scott said it's important that Vermont get its school-age children "back on track," but perhaps more important over the next few weeks is to address their social and emotional needs.

French said teachers and administrators are working hard to re-establish relationships and routines with their students, and academics will see an increased emphasis next month.

If COVID-19 indicators remain positive over the next month, he said, schools will be able to offer "less stringent" in-person instruction.

Nonetheless, said French, school as we used to know it won't be offered until a proven vaccine is widely available.

In the meantime, educators and administrators around the state will be sharing information as they go in order to develop the most effective learning practices, said French.

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"It has been difficult and challenging for our education system on many levels," French said. "But necessity is the mother of invention."

Dr. Mark Levine, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, said the state's contact tracing system is operating at about half capacity, which means any outbreaks related to school re-openings will be rapidly addressed.

Vermont also has increased testing capacity, he said, with more than 145,000 Vermonters having been tested since a national emergency was declared. Confidential test results are now available online, meaning notification will take only a day or two, Levine said.

He noted that not everyone needs to get tested, only those with symptoms or those who have been in close proximity to someone who has tested positive.

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"The best way to protect yourself from COVID," he said, "is to follow all of the key prevention practices. Testing is not prevention."

Vermont has not registered a COVID death since July 28, said Levine, and has averaged three new cases a day over the past four days.

Scott said even with colleges, universities and local schools reopening, the hospitality sector will continue to struggle. If the state keeps its positivity rates low during the next few weeks, said Scott, new guidelines will be ready for foliage and for ski season.

"We know that the hospitality sector is the most impacted in terms of unemployment," Scott said.

If Vermont proves it can safely reopen its schools, that could translate into people wanting to visit the state.

"We are the safest state in the nation," he repeated. "I wouldn't blame anyone for wanting to stay in Vermont for the winter."

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Scott acknowledged that despite everything that Vermont has done to stay safe, "apprehensive travelers" might not be ready to take a vacation.

"We could open up 100 percent and still not be at capacity," he said.

Mike Smith, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services, said the Legislature is looking at ways to expand the hazard pay provision offered to professionals in public health and safety to include volunteers.

Because volunteers don't get a paycheck, said Smith, it's hard for the state to determine how much they should get paid. So the state might just release block grants to municipalities and let them make their own determinations, he said.

Smith also noted that the state has established 24 child care hubs that will support 73 different locations around the state. Currently, Vermont has available 6,450 slots for child care placement and hopes to increase availability to 9,000 slots. Right now, 3,484 children have been signed up for slots, Smith said.

"We are seeking additional hub sites in a few areas around the state," Smith said, including in Manchester and surrounding towns.

Scott said the state is also looking at ways to keep in Vermont people who moved here because of its low positivity rates.

"Keeping them here takes an economy that works and it takes making Vermont more affordable," he said.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


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