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State: Students can remove masks, if school 80% vaxxed

Covid’s risk to students mental health is now greater than physical health, governor says

By Polly Mikula

Masking in schools — among the last remaining Covid mitigation measures in place for students — will soon be optional for schools with a student vaccination rate of over 80%, Governor Phil Scott announced at his regular press conference Tuesday, Feb. 15.

“Before the school year began our guidance was for schools was to require masking until 80% of students were vaccinated,” Scott said. “Unfortunately, that recommendation was delayed several times with a decision point scheduled for Feb. 28. Our team has decided not to delay it again.”

“I want to be clear: the 80% guidance will be the first phase in a process… In the very near future, if all goes to plan, we intend to recommend lifting the mask requirement recommendation altogether,” Scott added.

When asked how many schools currently have hit the 80% threshold for student vaccinations, Scott said the state was still compiling that data but said he believed it to be well under 50% of Vermont’s schools. “I believe it’s a smaller number,” he said. “It’s not as high as we hoped.”

He said that data should be available by next week.

“This is an important first step, albeit it does affect a very, very small group of schools,” said Secretary Dan French of the Agency of Education.

Over the last few weeks, several other states in New England have moved in that direction, Scott and French said.

“Massachusetts and Connecticut announced that they’re not going to be requiring masks in schools as of Feb. 28 and then most recently, Rhode Island announced an effective date of March 4,” French said. “These states started with omicron earlier than Vermont and they’re exiting the omicron surge earlier than we are as well. Although we remain optimism about the trends we’re seeing in Vermont, we’re not ready to jump to a recommendation for the removal of masks altogether,” he said.

“You might remember when we wrote the guidance back in September, students at age 5-11 were at that point not eligible for vaccination,” French added. “Now that we have achieved one of the highest student vaccination rates in the country, we are confident masks can be removed altogether. But we prefer to make incremental steps towards that goal as we have done throughout the entire pandemic.

“A phased approach, in our opinion, works best for a couple of reasons: We’re still exiting from the omicron surge, and this approach gives us a few more weeks to see those positive trends continue to play out after the winter vacation. And we also think the schools and families need more time to prepare for this change,” French explained.

“We’re in a new phase with this virus,” Scott proclaimed. “We have more protections and tools to use, and we understand more about the impacts of mitigation measures. All this means it’s time to adapt… The time for shift is now. The risk of kids not being able to see the faces of friends, the anxiety that comes with a constant reminder of this virus and the ongoing strain on our kids’ mental health is far outweighing the risk from Covid amongst this age group — and that guided our decision,” Scott stated. “We should begin the transition as soon as possible,” he added.

Local control

Scott and French also emphasize that the new guidance is simply recommendations for schools, without a state of emergency in place.

“Local school districts will be able to choose to implement it or not, although we encourage them to follow the state recommendations, which are crafted in collaboration with our public health experts at the Dept. of Health to help make this eventual transition as easy as possible,” French said, adding: “Schools should be reviewing their local mitigation practices and seeking to eliminate the unnecessary ones now. By unnecessary, I mean local measures that go above and beyond the state recommendations and contribute little to virus mitigation. For example, I’ve heard about schools not letting students talk during lunch, or schools that require students to wear masks during outdoor recess or to play in small groups or pods on the playground. None of these types of measures are necessary, and they send the wrong message to students that our schools are not safe from the virus. Eliminating these types of measures now will help students and staff with a transition to the eventual removal of masks,” he said.

“While we know we’ll continue to see cases in schools, our schools are very safe. They are perhaps some of the safest in the country, if not the world. Due to our high vaccination rates and robust access to testing,” French continued. “We do need to get our students in our schools back to normal as soon as possible. This means we need to allow our students to do normal things in schools like talking at lunch and playing on the playground with all their friends, not just those that are in their immediate class or grade. This also means they need to be able to see the faces of their classmates by not being required to wear masks.”

War of change

Scott acknowledged that the change would make many students, teachers, staff and parents in the school community wary.

“I know for some moving away from masking won’t be comfortable. They may want to continue wearing them. And that’s OK,” he said. “We need to be respectful and kind because, as we move forward, it’s individual circumstance that will drive these decisions. And everyone has the right to make those [risk] calculations for themselves.”

Health Commissioner Mark Levine echoed those sentiments: “There will be people who want or need to move at a different pace. And that’s OK,” he said. “As we have these past two years plus, we will all need to weigh our personal risks and decide which protections make sense for our own situation. I encourage you, each of us, to make these decisions using medical and science-based information, then we all need to accept these individual choices with empathy and without judgment.”

French added: “I think individually, we have to work on our own comfort level with risk, but then collectively (to the governor’s point about being respectful) you know, just be kind to our neighbors, everyone’s going to have a different approach to the risk.”

Supply and upcoming vacation demand

Secretary French also announced two new testing programs at the press conference Tuesday, a result of “the supply for antigen test kits for our tested home program in schools [that] remains strong,” he said.

The first is an expansion to provide antigen tests to independent schools.

The second is a school staff assurance testing program where each school staff member will be provided two antigen tests each week to use on a voluntary basis. “The Dept. of Health recommends that staff who wish to participate in this program use the two three days apart. For example, staff might test on Sunday before the school week begins and then again on Wednesday,” French explained.

Additionally, the state has provided two rapid antigen tests per student to use when they return from the winter break. “Students are encouraged to test twice at least 24 hours apart in the days before returning to school after the winter vacation,” he said, adding: “Testing is voluntary and it’s not required for students to come back to school after vacation.”

Omicron: what we’ve learned, predictions

Scott was confident that the downward trends in case and hospitalization numbers would mean fewer fatalities would soon follow — and he expects all metrics to continue falling.

“You’ve heard us talk all this talk about listening to the health experts, watching the data, listening to the science. And when you look at the omicron variant in its predictability, it’s been incredibly consistent, both in its structure, but its trajectory, increasing and also decreasing. So that gives us great comfort when you look at other countries who have experienced omicron before us and have seen that decrease, as well as other states who started decreasing before us and they’re still decreasing. So we benefit from that — listening to the science, watching the data, and making decisions that we think are appropriate.”

Levine elaborated: “Unfortunately the world has had to accept this virus is not going away. And new variants may emerge. But public health experts and scientists believe we will soon be able to coexist with the virus more safely for several reasons: First, we’ll have a lot more immunity, both from Vermont’s high vaccination rates and now for more of the population having been infected . Second, omicron has proven to be mild for most people, especially those who are vaccinated. And third, we have experience with this virus even though it has changed. So we know who is at most risk. This means that rather than broad recommendations for all Vermonters, we will be more focused in our public health efforts on reaching higher risk populations, working to get them up to date on vaccines, and making sure they have access to timely testing and treatment.”

Scott added: “I mean, when you think back, it wasn’t just three or four weeks ago that the Legislature was still contemplating a statewide mask mandate. I’m not sure that they feel the same way today, but they were prepared to vote on a statewide mask mandate at that point in time. That just shows you how quickly things have changed.

“We saw this in South Africa. It peaked and then dropped like a rock afterwards… I believe, based on everything, all the data we’ve collected, it’ll continue another week or two from now or three. It [the decline] could be much more dramatic. So I think our guidance, again, is incremental, it’s measured,” Scott concluded.

But Levine cautioned Vermonters not to stray too far in the “Covid’s over” direction: “I would not advise people throw their masks away forever and burn them in a big bonfire saying the pandemic is over, but at the same time we don’t see anything coming right now. And as these things do improve, the masks won’t be necessary and could be reserved for time that they would be in the future,” he said.

In a final word of caution, Levine reminded Vermonters of the prevalence of long Covid among those who have tested positive — and he got in one last plug for full vaccination, including boosters: “We still believe, for adults, at least there’s a 10 %-30% chance of having long Covid symptoms if you’ve contracted Covid — hopefully a little less so with omicron — but we don’t know that for a fact yet,” he said. “So if you have not taken the opportunity to either get vaccinated or to become up to date and fully protected on your vaccine [including a booster] keep those statistics in mind.”

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