Schools React to Relaxed State COVID Guidelines

by Doug McClure

MONTPELIER – Last fall, the state issued a forty-page document with policies and procedures as a playbook for re-opening schools. This year, the Agency of Education (AOE) has provided a one-and-a-half-page memo that primarily says people should not go to school sick and recommends a brief opening period during which masking should be required for those old enough to be vaccinated. For those under twelve, masking is recommended year-round.

The state suggests schools discontinue masking for those twelve and over once the school reaches an 80% vaccination rate, a number which Caledonia Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Mark Tucker called “arbitrary.” 

In justifying the state’s approach, the Scott administration continues to cite the 75% vaccination rate among school-age children old enough to be vaccinated. According to Vermont’s own numbers, though, NEK counties have far lower vaccination rates for students. Caledonia County had a vaccination rate of 58% for kids 12-15 and 64% for those aged 16-17. Orleans County’s vaccination rate among those 12-15 was 50% and 48.1% for those 16-17. Essex County still had vaccination rates for kids that were below 40%.

NEK schools often contain a wide range of age groups. Some schools have students ranging from kindergarten and elementary all the way up to through high school, meaning children too young to get vaccinated would be on the same campus as vaccine-eligible kids. Tucker said the Caledonia Central Supervisory Union has schools that are K-6, some that are K-8, and some that are K-12. He doubted that in K-8 schools reaching the 80% vaccination threshold will be possible because those schools would have eleven-year-olds that turned twelve, and, if not vaccinated, would lower the rate below 80%. 

Vermont’s Speaker of the House Jill Krowinsky and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint both issued statements expressing concern about the Scott administration’s approach as schools return. Balint said, “As a parent of a child under 12, I know parents across Vermont are, like me, excited about schools reopening, but many are also anxious about sending their unvaccinated children into bustling schools and classrooms. It is unclear and confusing to thousands of parents across Vermont why students, faculty, and staff are not being required to wear masks in schools at a time when we have community spread of the virus and our youngest children don’t have the protection that adults have available to them.”

Krowinsky said, “Students, teachers, and staff are returning to school this week, and all Vermonters should be confident that everything is being done to protect everyone in these congregate settings.” 

Ninety-one employees from Vermont’s health department expressed their own concerns about the administration’s approach in a letter to the department’s administrators that was shared with media. 

In local schools, all supervisory unions are mandating masking for the foreseeable future at this point.

At the national level, Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Sunday, “I believe that mandating vaccines for children to appear in school is a good idea.”

Both Tucker and Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union (OSSU) Superintendent Adam Rosenberg say that they do not believe the Supervisory Unions can mandate vaccinations. Elsewhere in Vermont, Harwood Union has issued a mandate for staff to be vaccinated. 

Tucker said he believed that the authority to issue vaccines lies with the state, as it does with the vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella, and polio that students must have before going to school. Vermont statute explicitly states that vaccines can be mandated by the state, though not specific as to who can mandate it.

The OSSU board met Monday night with an agenda item of “Safety & Health Protocols: ceding authority to superintendent or board assuming it; masking as attendance requirement; mandatory staff vaccinations; mandatory staff & student proof of vaccination sharing.”

Several factors complicate mandating vaccines for staff and students. As of press time, the OSSU representative to the teachers’ union had not responded to a request for comment about mandating staff vaccinations.

When it comes to mandating vaccines for students, the issue becomes thornier, since certain people have politicized vaccination, and others have spread disinformation.

Other factors contribute to complicating the question.

One factor is that in Vermont, children under 18 require parental permission to get a vaccination. Another factor, which some board members have cited, is that the Pfizer vaccine (now branded Comirnaty) is the only vaccine that is FDA-approved for non-emergency use. That full approval is only for those sixteen and older. 

The FDA has given “Emergency Use Authorization” (EUA) for non-Pfizer vaccines. Children aged 12-15 are eligible for Comirnaty under the emergency authorization. An FDA statement says that “Clinical trials are evaluating investigational COVID-19 vaccines in tens of thousands of study participants to generate the scientific data and other information needed by FDA to determine safety and effectiveness. These clinical trials are being conducted according to the rigorous standards set forth by the FDA.”

Both Moderna (now branded Spikevax), and Comirnaty were granted emergency-use approval for adults in December 2020. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine (now branded Janssen), was approved at the end of February. Comirnaty was approved for those 12-15 years of age in May. 

369 million doses of the vaccines have been administered in the U.S., with 900,000 of them in Vermont. According to the FDA, out of all the shots given in the U.S., two serious events have been reported in adults related to Comirnaty, both of which it attributed to the physical injection itself, and no serious events in those 12-15. Three serious events were reported with Spikevax, two which the FDA considered to be related to cosmetic fillers, and the others potentially related to physically getting the shot exacerbating a pre-existing condition.

While the debate over vaccines continues, case counts continue to rise. As of Monday, Caledonia and Orleans counties combined have reported over a hundred COVID cases in the past two weeks. As of Monday, nearly twice as many cases were reported in those nineteen and under as in those 20-29. Until recent weeks, Orleans County’s cases tended to be in much older populations. The 10-19 age group is the third-highest as of Monday.