Vermont school guidelines updated with relaxed restrictions, new details

The Vermont Agency of Education has amended its state guidelines for schools about reopening during the pandemic. The August 11 update includes less stringent requirements and more information about what to do if COVID-19 is found within a school’s population.

“Since the original release of this guidance, important new information has become available, including but not limited to, recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine,” the guidance says about why the changes were made. “This new information informs many of the revisions.”

Changes to A Strong and Healthy Start: Health Guidance for Vermont Schools are seen in green in the document on the agency’s website and include the following:

Step Changes and Additions

The state guidance provides for a systematic switching through phases of opening in three steps: Step I schools are closed, Step II schools are open with enhanced physical distancing measures and Step III schools are open with distancing measures.

Schools will start in Step II for all aspects except busing, which will start in Step III.

Step II was amended to include being open “for children who live in counties that are eligible for quarantine-free travel.” And, an addition to Step III includes “counties eligible for quarantine-free travel.”

The guidance also suggests steps will be determined by the Department of Health and all Vermont schools would be in the same step at the same time “unless epidemiologic conditions warrant otherwise.”

Districts will have the ability to choose among in-person, remote, or hybrid instruction regardless of the step level unless schools are placed on Step I.

“After the initial opening of school, the Department of Health will assess the larger public health conditions and consider moving all schools to Step III. A reasonable time frame for making this decision would likely be after the first two weeks of school.”

More:Schools rush to make air quality improvements before classes resume, get 100% project funding

The view from the closed playground at Edmunds Elementary School in Burlington on July 29, 2020.

Full-time, in-person instruction for Pre-K-5 recommended

The guidance doesn’t preclude schools from taking a more conservative approach, and even recommends phasing in loosened restrictions, but states “children in Pre-K through grade 5 should be given the highest priority for return to full-time in-person learning as these students are most likely to benefit from in-person learning and least likely to become infected with or transmit the virus that causes COVID-19.”

Symptom monitoring can be conducted at home

New guidelines suggest symptom and exposure monitoring can be conducted at home and reported to the school, staff may be able to take their temperature at home and make a report and temperature checks can be done at school entry rather than before boarding the school bus. 

“Exposure is defined as: close contact with a person who has COVID-19 within the last 14 days. Based on our current knowledge, a close contact is someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes starting from 48 hours before illness onset until the time the patient is isolated,” the guidance states.

COVID-19 symptoms, which would prevent students or staff from attending, have been modified to include: cough, fever (100.4 or greater), shortness of breath, chills, fatigue, muscle pain or body aches, headache, sore throat, loss of taste or smell, congestion or runny nose, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea (diarrhea is defined as frequent loose or watery stools compared to child’s normal pattern.)

Families are discouraged from attending large gatherings in the weeks leading up to the start of school to limit exposure to the virus. 

Routine testing of students and staff is not recommended.

At Williston Central School more hand sanitizing stations have been installed, particularly near building entrances, so students and staff can use multiple entrances to avoid crowded areas when school resumes in the fall. Water fountains' bubblers have been turned off, with just the bottle filling portion functional for when school resumes in the fall 2020 amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Pictured July 21, 2020.

Higher risk staff and students

School staff who are older or have underlying medical conditions are encouraged to assess their risk with their healthcare provider to determine if they should return to school.

Particular conditions which would put them at risk include chronic kidney disease, COPD, Immunocompromised state from solid organ transplant, obesity (body mass index of 30 or higher), serious heart conditions: heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies, sickle cell disease and Type 2 diabetes mellitus.

Students with documented allergies or well-controlled asthma now do not need clearance from a doctor.

More:As Vermont schools work to reopen, some worry: Will there be enough staff?

A hallway at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington stands empty before the start of the school year on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020.

Response to COVID-19 in schools

When a case of COVID-19 is found in the school population, “the decision to close schools or certain classrooms for in-person instruction will be made by the local superintendent or head of school after consulting with the Department of Health” on a case-by-case basis.

If grouping by cohort in a single-classroom:

The “recommendation will most likely be to close the classroom for in-person instruction and exclude students and staff in the affected classrooms/cohorts/pod for a minimum of 24 hours while contact tracing is conducted.”

If students have been moving between multiple classrooms:

The “recommendation will most likely be to close all potentially impacted classrooms and exclude students and staff in the affected classrooms or the entire school for in-person instruction for a minimum of 24 hours while contact tracing is conducted.”

The Department of Health would conduct contact tracing and make recommendations about who should be tested for the virus.

Specific guidance is forthcoming regarding data-driven decisions for when to close a school, how schools should react to a COVID-19 positive case as well as when to allow students or staff come back to school after exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. 

More:How would schools respond to a positive case of COVID-19 in the classroom?

Mount Mansfield Union High School in Jericho on July 30, 2020.

Bus transportation

Bus windows will be left open when possible, so students need to dress accordingly. 

Schools that utilize public transportation for a large portion of their student population should work with the transit company to ensure health of its students.

Facial coverings

Student face coverings should be identified with their initials and possibly with top/bottom, inside/outside indications. Facial coverings should be washed or changed after every day of use, or earlier if visibly soiled.

Clear face coverings which cover nose and wrap securely around the face or clear face shields which cover eyes, nose and mouth (less preferable) are allowed for staff teaching those who are deaf or hard of hearing, young students learning to read, English as a second language classes and students with disabilities.

Distancing shortened to 3 feet for young students

Kids in Pre-K through grade 5 could be spaced 3 feet apart, instead of the 6 feet initially recommended.

Teachers and older students should maintain the 6 feet of distance, however, teachers can get a little closer for limited one-on-one instruction by kneeling laterally next to a student so they are not facing one another.

Plastic and plexi-glass barriers can limit the 6-foot distance rule.

Moving classes outdoors is a strategy the agency recommends. Facial coverings would be needed in outdoor spaces if physical distancing cannot be maintained.

South Burlington High School, seen on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020.

Social-Emotional Health

Schools are encouraged to focus on the social-emotional health of staff and students by developing “a process for staff and student re-entry check-ins, weekly well-being checks and, if staff can be appropriately trained, universal social and emotional screenings to identify students and staff who need support.”

More:Back to school in a pandemic: What Vermont students and families can expect

More updates were included about specific cleaning products and protocols, permission to use playground equipment with proper sanitation, more cafeteria guidance, and a recommendation to continue with virtual events over large gatherings, performances or field trips.

Contact April Barton at abarton@freepressmedia.com or 802-660-1854. Follow her on Twitter @aprildbarton.

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