How Best To Reopen Schools? A Look At VT and NH | New Hampshire Public Radio

How Best To Reopen Schools? A Look At VT and NH

Mar 2, 2021

COVID and The Classroom: NHPR's coverage of schools amid the coronavirus pandemic
Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

Gov. Chris Sununu has ordered all New Hampshire schools to be open at least two days a week, starting next week. 

NHPR's Sarah Gibson spoke with Lola Duffort, education reporter for VTDigger, about the Green Mountain State's school reopening status, and how it compares to the Granite State.

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(Below is a computer-generated transcript of the interview.)

SARAH GIBSON: So here, Governor Sununu has ordered all schools to be open at least two days a week starting this month, it's mostly a symbolic gesture since most schools already have in-person classes at least a few days a week. But tell us a little bit about Vermont in general. How open have schools been over the past few months and who is making those decisions that that can happen safely?

LOLA DUFFORT: Right. Well, as in New Hampshire, mostly those decisions have happened kind of entirely at the local level. Schools have been, by and large, open mostly since September to some extent. So some school districts did begin the school year in a fully remote mode. But sometime in the fall, basically, everyone switched over to either fully in person four or five days a week or hybrid. If you were an elementary school, you were more likely to be in person. If you were a middle or high school, you were more likely to be hybrid. And as in New Hampshire, you are seeing from the state level of push to reopen more fully. The goal in Vermont now is fully in person, five days a week, all grades.

SARAH GIBSON: And what's the timeline for that?

LOLA DUFFORT: So the governor has said that he would like to see this happen sometime in April. He's also made very clear that this is an aspiration. He is using his bully pulpit a lot to talk about this. And there is enormous pressure on schools to make some form of this happen. But he has not talked about an executive order or a mandate.

SARAH GIBSON: And one of the things discussed here in New Hampshire is that schools can reopen more fully if community transmission is low. So what steps did Vermont take to keep that transmission level low in order for schools to reopen?

LOLA DUFFORT: Right. This is definitely another kind of key difference between Vermont and New Hampshire, which is that Vermont has done quite a bit to keep transmission low. And in general, we've had some of the lower levels of community transmission in the nation.

There ... you are not really allowed to socialize with other households right now. Bars have been shut down. Indoor dining is still allowed, but there are heavy restrictions on this. So when we entered our second wave, I believe this was November, there were a whole slew of new restrictions that were put into place. And a big reason for this was we need to clamp down on community transmission in order to keep schools as open as possible.

SARAH GIBSON: There has been frustration here among teachers that most of them aren't eligible for the vaccine until a little later this spring, though, some staff, mental health workers, school nurses, older teachers have been vaccinated. What's the status of teacher vaccinations in Vermont?

LOLA DUFFORT: It sounds like it's very much like the status of teacher vaccines in New Hampshire. So teachers have not been prioritized. It's been suggested that they might be prioritized in the next phase or that they might be moved up the line.

Gov. Phil Scott hinted at that last Friday, but nothing concrete. And obviously, this has played into the conversation about pushing for more in-person learning because the response from teachers has been, well, if you want us to assume more risk, especially if you're thinking about like increasing density within schools, where's my vaccine?

SARAH GIBSON: Yeah, some real similarities there in Vermont about teacher vaccination. Moving on to sports teams. So high schoolers here are about to start playoffs in interscholastic sports. No spectators masks are required. I'm curious what sports are looking like in Vermont.

LOLA DUFFORT: About a month ago, the governor said that interscholastic sports could start again, including indoor sports like hockey and basketball. But this has been pretty contentious decision. There's obviously a faction of parents that very much want this, that it's extremely important for their kids and also a ton of consternation in the education workforce about what this could mean for spread. A lot of nervousness from the public health experts that I've interviewed who have been like, I hate to say no, but this definitely increases the risk for transmission.

SARAH GIBSON: I can't help but ask Lola, just given all the work you've been doing covering this in Vermont, what stories or trends are you keeping an eye out for for the rest of the semester?

LOLA DUFFORT: I think the next big question in Vermont is whether or not teachers will be vaccinated and also where they will be placed in the line compared to other essential workers, because I think it's very possible that they might be prioritized. Over essential workers who are actually at more risk, right? Like, for example, grocery store workers because of this push for in-person learning. And I imagine that that's probably going to be a very difficult conversation and difficult debate.

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