Vermont schools have been given the OK to relax their in-person education plans starting next week, which could include opening gyms and cafeterias to smaller-than-usual groups, and allowing sports teams to compete against other schools.

Locally, schools will take a wait-and-see approach, as cases of COVID-19 are never far away — one positive case of the disease was identified in a Peoples Academy student last week.

The so-called Step 3 allowance was made Tuesday, Sept. 22, by Gov. Phil Scott and education secretary Dan French as part of the state’s “Strong and Healthy Start” initiative. Schools opened up Sept. 8 under more restrictive Step 2 guidelines.

Under Step 3, communal spaces, such as cafeterias and gyms could be used as long as groups are small and staggered and the areas are cleaned and disinfected between uses; seating is assigned so students eat with their pods or cohorts of fellow classmates; and food-sharing is limited.

Lamoille North superintendent Cat Gallagher — who oversees education for Belvidere, Cambridge, Eden, Hyde Park, Johnson and Waterville — said there aren’t many differences between Step 2 and Step 3. Social distancing, mask wearing and daily health checks are all still required.

“There’s a big misconception, that Step 3 means normal school,” Gallagher said. “That is not what it means.”

In a letter to the Lamoille South community — Elmore, Morristown and Stowe — superintendent Tracy Wrend said the district won’t be making any immediate changes to protocols, and simply might not, “depending on local data.” Any transitions made will prioritize elementary and middle school students, Wrend said.

Wrend said there has been one positive case of COVID-19 in Lamoille South — a Peoples Academy student — but the health department didn’t see it fit to take any special action, since the district, and the student, acted quickly.

“The student has not been in school for the past seven days, since they learned of close contact outside of school with someone else who tested positive,” Wrend said.

“Please join me in extending care and support to the student and their family, as well as anyone else who may be impacted by COVID-19 at this time.”

Thus far, no positive cases have popped up in Lamoille North schools, Gallagher said, despite the fact that the number of positive cases in Lamoille County is ticking upwards – as of Tuesday there had been 11 new cases reported in the last two weeks in the county.

“Because our controls have been so tight, we are not seeing anything so far,” Gallagher said. “I am aware that Lamoille County has experienced a rise in cases, but that has not impacted our Lamoille North schools at this point.”

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