BY ANGELO LYNN
RUTLAND COUNTY— Last week, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott announced that the state would no longer recommend that students wear masks in schools after March 14, a change in masking guidelines that included all public indoor spaces.
At a press conference March 3, state officials recommended that masks be made optional everywhere indoors — including schools — by March 14.
Area schools are among those that are adopting the optional masking protocols.
“We have had a masking mandate in place,” said RNESU Superintendent Jeanné Collins, adding that she confirmed last Friday “that we would move to mask optional as of March 14. We have 97% of adults (staff) vaccinated, and 55-60% of eligible students vaccinated.”
Collins said that even though there was a large surge in COVID cases since the December break over the holidays, “we feel we are ready to step into this move.”
She said the school district would differ from the state on some testing options. “One thing we wish to continue is the availability of antigen tests for staff and students to address lingering anxieties for the rest of the school year,” she said. “The state is talking about phasing this out, but we are advocating to finish the year” by making the antigen tests readily available.
Superintendent Chris Sell of the Greater Rutland County Supervisory Union said they too would follow the state guidelines. “The GRCSU will be following the recommendation of the Agency of Education and going mask-optional on March 14,” Sell said, adding that they would continue to provide take-home antigen testing as per state guidelines. The GRCSU includes the schools in Rutland, Proctor, West Rutland, Poultney, Middletown Springs and Wells.
Sell had sent a memo out to staff, parents and guardians last week that spelled out the policy change in more detail, including the following:
• Beginning March 14th, masks will be optional in all GRCSU schools and on school transportation (buses, vans, etc.).
• If a student or staff member would like a KN95 mask to wear while at school or on school transportation, please reach out to your child’s school office for more information and availability.
• We will continue to provide take-home antigen testing kits to all staff, students, and families as needed at this time.
• There will be an update to the isolation and quarantine guidance. We will share this updated information from the Vermont Department of Health when we receive it.
• Please note that March 11th is the last school day that all individuals are required to wear masks while in school buildings. “Mask optional” does not begin until March 14th. Any individual who refuses to wear a mask between now and March 14th will be sent home for the day.
Sell added that the school district was “aware that this shift in the AOE’s COVID recommendations and guidance may be received differently by each of our community members. As a result, if you have any questions or are in need of any support please reach out to your child’s administrator and/or school nurse.”
Schools in other parts of the state were following suit.
“I feel good about (March) 14th,” said David Young, superintendent of the South Burlington School District, which plans to lift its mandate by that date. “I think the important piece here is, it’s mask-optional, right? We aren’t telling people they can’t wear a mask.”
Many schools have already lifted mandates.
“It has been almost exactly two years since the pandemic turned our world upside down, but I am confident that we are truly turning the corner toward normalcy,” Barre Superintendent Chris Hennessey wrote in a letter to parents last week, announcing that masks would be optional as of Monday, March 7.
In a letter to families last week, St. Johnsbury Superintendent Brian Ricca also announced plans to make masks optional by March 7.
“No one should ask anyone else about their mask-wearing choices,” Ricca told parents in a letter last week. “This is a personal decision, a family decision, and we will be respectful of the options that others make.”
It was not immediately clear if any school districts had opted not to follow the governor’s guidance, though one superintendent — Brigid Nease, of the Harwood Union school district — said that school officials were monitoring Covid-19 cases and had not yet decided whether to follow the recommendations.
Brian Hill, interim superintendent of the Mill River Union school district, expressed some reservations about the new guidance.
“We need (to) take steps to move from pandemic to endemic, and the numbers suggest that the timing for one of those steps is near — but it is hard to not be conflicted about that timing and if it is the right step when experts are conflicted,” Hill wrote in an email. “We’re trying to take it all in stride and help all of our folks feel valued, no matter which side of the masking debate they lean toward.”
The state’s new guidance comes two weeks after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosened its recommendations for masking indoors. The federal agency recommends that masks be worn indoors in counties with high levels of Covid-19 transmission, but still advocates for universal masking in schools, according to its website.
Vermont, however, is recommending that masks be made optional statewide — including all counties and schools.
That marks a change from the state’s previous recommendations, in which mask-wearing was pegged to a school’s vaccination rate.
“We’re going to look at this holistically — the entire state of Vermont, instead of by county, because we’re so intertwined with everyone else,” Scott said last week.
The state is following a nationwide trend of lifting mask mandates in schools — a process that has drawn criticism from some public health experts, who see the trend as politically motivated and unscientific.
“Data, not dates or politics, should guide Vermont’s school COVID-19 policy choices,” Anne Sosin, a policy fellow of health equity at Dartmouth College, wrote on Twitter last week.
But the governor’s announcement last week appears to signal a larger shift in the state’s approach to Covid-19 safety guidelines in schools.
In a memo released last week, the state Agency of Education said that it would no longer issue Covid-19 recommendations for schools and previewed upcoming changes in school testing procedures.
By March 14, “there will be no school-specific COVID-19 prevention and mitigation recommendations issued by the State of Vermont,” the memo reads. “School COVID-19 testing programs (response testing and staff assurance testing) will be phased out at some point in favor of students and staff accessing the same testing programs provided to all Vermonters.”
Agency of Education spokesperson Ted Fisher said in an email that details were not immediately available about “when, and how, school testing will transition to a broader statewide approach, but those conversations are ongoing.”
“Conditions have reached the point where special protections in schools are no longer needed, and there is a lot of interest in ending mandates on things like masking, which have posed challenges for some students during the pandemic,” Fisher said.
Editor’s Note: Peter D’Auria of VtDigger contributed to this report.