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Guest Column: State’s Covid response sets schools up for failure

BY REP. ERIN BRADY 

When the pandemic first started and parents were commiserating about the immense challenges of schools being shut down and navigating “remote learning,” I was optimistic that a silver lining of this awful pandemic would be a new level of commitment to schools, teachers and staff. My experience now tells me that the exact opposite may be true. 

Schools are one of the few community institutions almost all families are still connected to and they have often become the object of criticism and second guessing. When administrators have to close classrooms due to Covid cases or keep them closed because test results are delayed and contact-tracing is cumbersome, it is often the schools that are scrutinized rather than our infrastructure for responding to the pandemic or our community measures to suppress it. 

Just as several doctors, healthcare professionals and a UVM professor of mechanical engineering expressed in their late August commentaries, I am concerned we are not doing enough to protect our children and keep our schools open. I am a high school social studies teacher, a member of the Champlain Valley School Board and the Legislature, where I sit on the Education Committee. Most importantly, I’m a parent of two children under the age of 12. 

My son is one of many students who is at home in quarantine right now. By the third week of school, several classrooms in Williston were shut down due to positive Covid cases and the same is true in many communities around the state. Those who do not have school-age children or whose classrooms have mercifully stayed open thus far may not realize how quickly this situation is heading in the wrong direction. 

As a teacher, I pour extraordinary effort and organization into the first weeks of school to create engaging, positive learning communities. As a state, we are not investing the same level of care and directive guidance that students and school staff require in this evolving phase of Delta spread. Last year, schools were given extensive guidance and extra time to open schools safely. When parents are going to Facebook to compare the lunch procedures or seating plans at different schools, as they are now doing, it only serves to erode support for schools while fracturing our communities. 

Guidance around masks in schools continues to put further strain on school administrators and board members as they try to constantly respond, relay updates to their community and then deal with reactions. As of last week, schools were asked to keep mask mandates in place for students through Oct. 4. Masking is our most basic layer of protection and will certainly be needed long past early October, especially since kids 12 and under will not be vaccinated yet. 

When I go to the grocery store and see all employees, including some of my high school students, wearing masks while many customers choose to shop unmasked, I am disheartened. According to Dr. Thomas Tsai, an assistant professor of health policy at Harvard University, “What really protects children are the interventions directed at the rest of society.” (www.nytimes.com, Sept. 9) I am disappointed that reinstating a universal masking mandate in order to protect our children seems to be too much to ask of Vermonters. 

President Biden’s strong actions this week signal a needed shift in our pandemic response and underscore the importance and urgency of vaccines. As we get further clarification of how those orders will impact Vermont workers, including school employees, it will undoubtedly increase our already high vaccination rates. When vaccines are approved for children, we need to be ready to have an important conversation around Covid vaccination requirements for children in schools. 

Schools are doing their own contact-tracing and the strain on school administrators, nurses and staff cannot be overstated. They are spending their evenings, weekends and much of their school day on the phone. Despite this strain, I have heard some administrators voice their desire to keep contact-tracing in-house because they can make informed decisions about classrooms faster without an intermediary source involved. Schools should not be faced with only bad options for contact-tracing. At the board level, we are considering “recovery plans” and measures for the academic and emotional wellbeing of students, but we have to be realistic. There are only so many hours in the day, there are only so many administrators. Contact-tracing and Covid response are consuming our school leaders. 

I wear a lot of education “hats” because I am passionate about public education as an important means to create a more just and equitable society. I am eager to work on improving student outcomes, expanding early childhood education and better supporting Vermonters as they transition from high school to their post-secondary futures. Right now though, I am most concerned about my own sons going to school, being able to teach my high school students in person and the schools in our state being open. 

Clear statewide guidance, strong requirements around community tools like masking and unified messaging from state officials are important tools to protect our children and keep our schools open. 

Erin Brady represents Williston in the Vermont House of Representatives and serves on the Champlain Valley School Board.

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