Vermont’s public schools haven’t traditionally required uniforms, but, starting next Monday on the first day of classes, there will be one fashion accessory everyone needs to wear: face masks.
Hear that incessant tapping noise? It’s the sound of countless people knocking on wood, hoping those masks are the only thing separating this year from an otherwise normal one.
“We’re heading in a really great direction, but there are a lot of outside forces with COVID, so, here we go again,” superintendent Ryan Heraty said Tuesday.
Heraty, new to the district as of July 1, had just finished an invigorating staff in-service day, and reported back that faculty and staff seemed excited to be back in the classroom.
“The vibe is really positive right now,” he said. “The teachers I’ve spoken to seem really well-rested, they seem recharged and ready for the year ahead.”
That rest and recharging is already miles ahead of where innumerable educators were at this point last year, when they’d spent the bulk of their summers trying to re-invent school in a hybrid model that would only ever see half the student body in school on any given day, and none on Wednesdays.
This year — knock on wood — classes will be on campus five days a week. And, although the state has still been mum on other extracurriculars like band and chorus, restrictions around sports have been relaxed.
This being a pandemic, still, there are some other wrinkles besides the required masks, according to the return to school handbook released earlier this month.
• The morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up procedures “will be similar to pre-COVID operations,” although the large gatherings of students, staff and parents so traditional on the first day of school won’t be allowed.
• The formal daily health screenings administered last year — how are you feeling, what’s your temperature, etc. —are gone, but students and staff who are sick are still advised to stay home. “This will be the most effective way to keep our schools safe and healthy,” the handbook states.
• Masks will be required on buses, regardless of age or vaccination status.
• Elementary and middle school students will eat lunch in their classrooms, and high schoolers will eat in the cafeteria.
According to Heraty, while the Food and Drug Administration has given full approval for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination, it’s still uncertain how soon it will be until children under the age of 12 — sixth grade and below, for the most part — will be able to receive a shot. He said the most recent information he’s received indicates scientists are “in a limbo” as they weigh whether to allow it or go through another round of studies with kids from that age group.
“The big question mark is when are all students going to have access to the vaccine, and that is going to drive talks about preventative measures come winter,” he said.
Betsy Rich, a speech language aide at Morristown Elementary School, said at last week’s Lamoille South school board meeting she is worried schools are “simply following guidance, rather than thinking for ourselves.”
“My worry is about the little people, and whether or not we have really done our due diligence and checked the risk benefit to wearing masks all day long,” Rich said. “I want to make extra sure that we’re not working on theory, that we’re working on facts, and that we really are considering that parents should make the decision for their families and their children at this point. We’re not in a state of emergency any longer. We’re in a relatively safe place, and the kids need to breathe and run and see faces.”
George Wheelwright, who has an incoming fifth grader who is not yet eligible for a vaccine, said he was “thoroughly dismayed” to hear any suggestion of not having masks in school. He said he and a school nurse at a different school were discussing how kids are in more danger this year than last, with the Delta variant ravaging the country and more people opting to go maskless in public over the summer.
“We did it last year. The kids did it better than the grownups,” Wheelwright said of mask wearing. “I know they don’t want to wear it. But I really think that the only way to stop the spread is through the use of masks.
Mandatory masks, not just one person does, and one person doesn’t.”
Schoolboard member Tiffany Donza of Stowe said she is “definitely in the Betsy camp” and prefers kids not wear masks, although she is in support of the current mask mandate. She would, however, prefer that the district keeps its eyes on a goal of getting kids out of the masks, and trying to achieve it through other means than an across-the-board, 80 percent vaccination rate.
“The guidance loses that a little bit by just putting one threshold of the vaccination rate.”
Heraty said, with two board meetings a month, he can give the board regular updates based on his talks with medical experts.
Also discussed at last week’s board meeting was the availability of virtual learning this year. Short answer, not much.
The Vermont Virtual Learning Collaborative is still there, but it has far fewer spots available — 20 for Lamoille South elementary school students and 25 for middle and high schoolers — and priority is for students and families with COVID-related concerns. Other requests will be considered after Aug. 30, the deadline to make the request, if seats remain, but everyone who takes that option must commit to virtual-only enrollment for the entire school year.
Although Heraty was pleased that faculty seems well-rested and recharged, he didn’t get a whole lot of downtime this summer.
But, he said, he’s still riding the initial excitement of being the new superintendent in a new district.
“Next summer, I may take some extra time off,” he said. “This year, I’m just excited to see all the kids in school.”