Lamoille County’s status as having one of the highest vaccination rates in a state with the highest vaccination rate in the country has not inoculated it against COVID-19 skeptics.
Even after a year of success following numerous mitigation measures and despite the recent surge of the Delta variant of COVID-19, a vocal minority is speaking out against masking guidelines in the Lamoille North Supervisory Union school district.
Though the area is not seeing the anti-masking outrage and violence reported in other school districts throughout the country in places like Florida, Georgia, Texas and Hawaii, a relatively small but vocal handful of parents in Lamoille County’s northern and more rural school district is speaking out against the masking guidance, pushing claims that have been refuted by doctors and medical experts.
In its communications announcing its mask policy for the upcoming year, the school district attempted to get ahead of critics who don’t see the necessity of continuing to take measures to fight viral spread in schools.
“We recognize that this decision is frustrating to some of you, but we hope you know that it is because our first commitment is to keeping all of our students and staff as safe as possible so we can provide our students with the best education, which is in-person instruction,” Superintendent Catherine Gallagher said in the Aug. 20 letter announcing the measures.
Savannah McKenzie, one particularly vocal parent in the district with a child in kindergarten at Hyde Park Elementary School, also runs Kid Savvy Family Daycare.
At the Aug. 16 meeting where the school board approved masking guidelines, citing Agency of Education guidance and legal liability, McKenzie voiced concerns about masking and vaccine requirements. She wanted parents to be allowed to decide whether their child should wear a mask and said her child would not be wearing one.
According to Gallagher, state education officials say schools can refuse to allow a child to attend class if they are not masked, though it would not technically count as a suspension.
“We would work with the family, obviously, first,” Gallagher said. “I mean, we are a restorative practice system. The first thing for us to do is articulate the expectations and that is what we have done.”
McKenzie, who in 2019 advocated for higher subsidies for childcare providers with Rep. David Yacovone (D-Morrisville), said in an email she has been fighting for “mask choice” since last summer, citing concerns about how masks hinder children’s development and their ability to communicate.
According to PolitiFact, a lack of data makes it difficult to know what the long-term effects of pandemic masking will be for young children.
She also said her privately run daycare does not require masks, and she also does not require families to report whether they are inoculated against COVID-19. She declined to share whether she had gotten vaccinated or not.
“I don’t believe there is anything to be afraid of, I choose to live my absolute best life with my family,” McKenzie said. “If we get sick, our immune systems know what to do. This will all pass. But we get more divided each time the government makes up a reason for people to step one way or the other. Last year was black versus white with the Black Lives Matter campaign. This year it’s vax versus un-vax, and we all have — or we used to have — medical freedom.”
An attempted education
On Monday night, the Lamoille North school district held a public forum with Dr. William Raszka, the chief pediatric epidemiologist at the University of Vermont, at Green Mountain Technology and Career Center after receiving what Gallagher described as many health-related questions.
The event accommodated a small in-person audience and was also simulcast with a comment section for remote viewers. Raszka spent most of the event diplomatically fielding antagonizing questions from three women attending the event in person. All three wore masks and did not identify themselves.
Raszka attempted to guide the audience through a presentation of slides explaining the contagiousness of the surging Delta variant and justify the Agency of Education’s continued masking guidance, emphasizing that masking and distancing were proven ways of mitigating infection until vaccines are approved for children under 12.
When one of the critics attempted to claim that eight people had died in Vermont after contracting COVID-19 despite being vaccinated, Raszka disputed the data, saying he was not familiar with the source she was citing.
Another claimed that COVID vaccines caused sterility and was worried they might potentially keep her from having grandchildren in the future. Raszka said there was absolutely no data that indicated either COVID-19 or any of the available vaccines caused sterility.
When another said that COVID-19 was no different than the common cold and that everyone she knew who had gotten the virus was just fine and no one had died, Raszka pushed back, saying that, though he had not seen a child die of COVID-19 in Vermont, “not having seen a child die is a very tough standard” by which to judge the necessity of mitigation measures.
“You cannot get COVID from the vaccine,” Raszka said after one person made that claim and a claim that vaccines altered DNA. He also cited data that showed that although vaccinated people could still contract the virus, the vaccines are effective at reducing the virus’ severity.
Another critic said her daughter came home from every day of in-person school last year with a headache, but Raszka countered that “in general, children have tolerated the masks really well.”
Occasional arguments between anti-maskers and others present broke out during the forum. In the online chat accompanying the video of the forum, others expressed dismay.
“People are so rude to this guy,” said Ralph Irish. “Bet he wishes he didn’t come to Lamoille County to share with us. I am embarrassed for our community.”
Several others in the chat agreed with him.