Lamoille North Supervisory Union Superintendent Catherine Gallagher has found herself unexpectedly returning to teaching, filling in on the subjects of algebra and French after quarantining instructors who tested positive for COVID-19 as the Omicron variant swept through schools following the holidays.

“One reason we are able to close a school, or one of the very few reasons we’re able to, is if we have staffing shortages and can’t operate safely. So, if I have time, or if anybody has time who’s qualified to teach or to be a substitute teacher to fill in, and if that makes a difference in having to close a school, we’re going to pitch in,” she said.

Gallagher said the need for her to substitute teach despite her high rank was “good” for her and “a refresher,” a comment which prompted a laugh from Lamoille South Unified Union Superintendent Ryan Heraty, who joined in for a rare joint school district conversation with the press Monday afternoon.

The two top administrators came together to address the tidal wave of COVID-19 cases in communities and schools across the country and address concerns about changing guidance from the Vermont Agency of Education about testing and contact tracing.

While both districts have avoided the full-on closures that others in the state have faced due to teacher and student absences for COVID-19 quarantining, they have both undoubtedly suffered from the spread of this extremely contagious strain of the virus, which has left teachers, parents and administrators under greater pressure than any time since schools returned to full-time, in-person learning last fall.

On Monday, Lamoille North reported 95 new cases throughout its district. While elementary schools that dealt with rising case numbers during the first half of the school year added more cases, Lamoille Union High School had 38 new cases for a total of 56 since the pandemic began, more than any other school in the district.

According to Gallagher, 150 students and staff at the high school were in quarantine as of Monday but she had not yet seen an absence of students higher than 50 percent.

Lamoille South, which had largely avoided the COVID-19 outbreaks that some Lamoille North schools have faced, was unable to escape the effects of the Omicron wave. According to Heraty, many COVID cases were reported after community members tested positive on rapid antigen tests before stepping foot into a school.

Though he did not provide specific numbers, Heraty was able to provide the official attendance numbers for Lamoille South schools as of Monday. Attendance had fallen slightly below average at the district’s elementary schools, but at Stowe Middle School and Peoples Academy Middle Level, which normally maintain an average attendance rate of 91 percent, attendance had fallen to 82 percent.

Stowe High School’s attendance rate dipped slightly to 89 percent, while Peoples Academy in Morrisville saw its attendance rate fall to 74 percent. Heraty also said there had been a higher-than-average level of staff absences, prompting the district to “get creative” and ask administrators to fill in when necessary.

“Our educators are really pulling together to cover for each other and really make sure that kids can come to school and be in a safe location where they have access to a good meal and still get access to high quality instruction,” Heraty said. “They’re pitching in right now and fortunately, we’re not the same position that a lot of other schools are.”

“That’s why I say we’re not there yet,” Gallagher added. “Because, I never know what tomorrow is going to look like, but we’ve been really fortunate.I’ll include (Orleans Central Supervisory Union) in that, sort of the three regions. We just haven’t seen the absolute devastation that we’re seeing in other parts of the state.”

Shifting health guidelines

Gallagher and Heraty also both spent the weekend fielding concerns over the partial announcement of new regulations regarding COVID-19 in schools handed down by the state education agency last Friday.

An email sent to Vermont schools announced an “imminent policy shift” and directed schools to stop contact tracing and polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, surveillance testing, Burlington-based newspaper Seven Days first reported.

The move was part of an overall shift of responsibility from schools to families as many schools struggled with or abandoned contact tracing, the practice of identifying those who had been in close contact with those who test positive for COVID-19, in the post-holiday surge.

The agency released further guidance to schools Tuesday, announcing that school districts will be receiving rapid antigen COVID-19 tests to distribute to families, a move the state claims will increase access to testing and allow students to determine COVID-19 status at home, before arriving at school.

Though less reliable during the early stages of infection than PCR tests, rapid antigen tests are generally considered by health experts to be effective at identifying those with COVID-19 who are symptomatic and carrying high viral loads.

Officials at the state and local level have emphasized that PCR surveillance testing was simply no longer effective for identifying and preventing the spread of COVID-19 with the quick intubation and high level of contagiousness that has become the Omicron variant’s trademark.

The “test to stay” program will continue, with schools providing families the rapid antigen tests they will need to test back into the school. The state attempted to distribute over 90,000 rapid antigen tests on short notice prior to students returning from the holidays but only 44,700 were picked up, according to VTDigger.

Schools are now following the adjusted quarantine guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allowing staff and students who test positive for COVID-19 to return to school after just five days instead of 10 if they are asymptomatic or their symptoms resolve by that point.

The agency is also asking districts to fill out a form if schools are forced to close for COVID-related reasons to help it identify schools that may need assistance and inform policy decisions.

As for contact tracing, Gallagher said that families will still be notified when a positive test occurs in the classroom. At a press conference with Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday, secretary of education Dan French said a new template for how schools communicate positive tests would be forthcoming and the documentation process is changing.

In-person above all

Despite the pressure the Omicron wave has put upon Lamoille County schools and schools across the state, the messaging around the rise in cases has focused on the need for kids to remain in school, no matter what.

From Scott to French to commissioner of health Mark Levine to Lamoille superintendents, in-person learning has been identified as the paramount need of students.

At the governor’s press conference Tuesday, Levine called in-person learning the “north star” of the Vermont Department of Health’s policy for schools. Rebecca Bell, a doctor working in pediatric critical care who also spoke at the press conference, emphasized that the state was in a much better place than at the beginning of the pandemic and that schools have lower rates of COVID-19 than the general population.

Levine also urged families to acquire better masks, such as KN95 or N95, if they could in order to better protect themselves against the super-contagious Omicron variant. Heraty said Lamoille South will provide adult and child-sized masks to all who need them.

At one point in the press conference, Levine said it was now a matter of “when, not if” a person would contract COVID-19.

This attitude of infection acceptance, fast-changing guidance and the general chaos of the holiday return has left some parents critical of the agency of education. Mark Freeman, a parent of Lamoille Union High School students who has one child in quarantine after a close contact, is one frustrated parent.

Though he recognizes that his local teachers and administrators are doing their best, Freeman sees Scott and French as failing to lead during a crisis.

“We continue to put our teachers and children at risk by creating gigantic petri dishes in our schools,” he said. “The governor and general public seem to have this laissez-faire attitude of, ‘Well, we’re all going to get it.’ First off, that’s a terrible attitude for anyone who is immune-compromised or can’t vaccinate. Second, people are still dying.”

To families concerned about sending children to school amidst the Omicron wave, the Lamoille superintendents maintained their confidence that school was still the safest place for students to be.

Though Gallagher is consistently wary of stepping into the realm of public health guidance, educators at all levels have little choice in the midst of the pandemic.

“Our COVID coordinators, who are all nurses, can talk about the science behind this new variant and the data is showing that, for vaccinated people, there is sort of less of a hit than we may have had with previous variants. Do I know that to be true? No. But that’s what we’re hearing and we have to rely on our health experts to guide us,” Gallagher said.

“We just want to reassure parents: They want children in school, we want children in school. School has been one of the safest places for students to be. We still don’t have a lot of school based transmission at this point.”

Though the risk of death for children has been minimal so far, particularly for those who have been vaccinated, the number of children hospitalized with COVID-19 is growing across the country. Little is known about how contracting the virus will affect their long term health, but the Center for Disease Control recently released a study that showed children who have recovered from COVID-19 are at increased risk for contracting Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes.

Children under the age of 5 who are ineligible for vaccination and may be the most at risk among the school-age population also suffered the greatest learning loss in the first year of the pandemic and have the most difficulty adapting to remote learning.

“For students in kindergarten, preschool and elementary school, online learning, as far as I’ve seen, has really not been that helpful, especially trying to get a student to sit in front of a screen to learn something. It just isn’t,” said Susan Whitman, a lecturer on integrative health at the University of Vermont.

“We had some students who started first grade this year, who hadn’t had any real formal education because of the pandemic, and the engagement and the connection building and the routines, it took some work, it took a lot of work,” Gallagher said. “There was a learning loss that we had to make up and that we are making up. I think that’s why the state talked about a three year recovery plan, because it’s certainly not happening in one year. We’re gonna need that time.”

For now, the state and schools are of one mind on what comes first when weighing in-person education access and COVID-19 health risks, but as the Omicron variant sweeps through the state, it will continue to be a balancing act for administrators and policy makers.

“It’s hard to say what the long term effects of COVID are going to be,” Whitman said. “It’s hard to say what the long term effects of distance learning and this is going to be, as well as trying to weigh all of these things. I don’t envy anyone who’s in that position right now trying to weigh the pros and cons of all those different pieces.”

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