Last month, amid falling Covid-19 case numbers, Gov. Phil Scott announced a major shift in Vermont’s school safety recommendations.
By the beginning of March, highly vaccinated schools — those with vaccination rates of 80% or higher — should drop their mask mandates, state officials said.
“Our kids need to get back to normal,” Scott said at a Feb. 15 press conference. “They’ve been through a lot. So we should begin this transition as soon as possible.”
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But now, some school districts are going even further.
At least half a dozen Vermont school districts have lifted or plan to lift mask mandates completely — even at schools that may not have reached that 80% threshold.
The changes follow a trend of unmasking that has played out in liberal states over the past few weeks — sometimes against the advice of public health experts.
“This change will cause high anxiety for some community members, which is understandable,” Bill Kimball, superintendent of the Maple Run school district, which is lifting its mandate, told community members in a letter March 1. “To support students who choose to wear a mask, the staff will be on guard for peer pressure and will proactively support each student in the choice they make for themselves.”
In many cases, the changes in policy come roughly a week after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance on when Americans should wear masks.
Those guidelines, issued Feb. 25, measure “Covid-19 Community Levels,” a metric that looks beyond case counts to hospitalizations and capacity in a given geographic region. The CDC does not recommend that people living in areas with low or medium community levels wear a mask indoors, unless they are frequently in contact with someone identified as high-risk.
Many Vermont school officials expect the Scott administration to further loosen the state’s school masking guidance this week. But some districts are already moving ahead on their own.
As of March 2, masks are optional in all schools in the Missisquoi Valley School District, the Maple Run district and the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union.
In letters to the community sent this week, school officials noted that the Covid-19 spread in Franklin County was currently rated “medium” by the CDC, and the CDC does not recommend an indoor mask mandate for counties with medium-level spread.
“People will need to choose to respect other people’s decisions and be kind to others making a choice that differs from their own,” Franklin Northeast Superintendent Lynn Cota said in a letter Feb. 28 to the community.
Franklin Northeast covers the Enosburg-Richford and Northern Mountain Valley school districts.
“Some people will choose to continue to wear a mask some of the time, or all of the time, based on their beliefs, personal health conditions, etc. No one should be ridiculed, pressured or made fun of for choosing to wear, or not wear, a mask,” Cota said.
Cota and Julie Regimbal, superintendent of the Missisquoi Valley School District, said the state had not yet shared school vaccination data with district officials.
In the Maple Run district, 80% of the Bellows Free Academy student body is vaccinated, while the district’s three pre-K to eighth grade schools have vaccination rates between 50% and 65%, according to superintendent Kimball’s letter.
“COVID is moving from a pandemic to an endemic, and our practices will require a shift to personal responsibility for our community’s overall health and safety,” Kimball said in his letter.
For students in the Lamoille South school district, which covers Stowe, Elmore and Morristown, masks in schools are also optional as of March 2.
The average vaccination rate across the district was “right around 80%,” Lamoille South Superintendent Ryan Heraty said in an email.
“Several members of the board felt that, since the students interact with each other so often and many share the same household, it wouldn’t make sense to do it school-by-school with our current overall vaccination rates and low community transmission,” Heraty said.
Masks will also become optional March 7 in the Slate Valley School District, Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell told community members in an email last month.
“Despite our very best efforts, mask compliance is now a daily challenge for staff, administrators and educators to enforce,” Olsen-Farrell wrote.
The district’s six schools have vaccination rates ranging from 39% to 71%, but many other students have contracted and recovered from Covid-19, the superintendent said.
[Looking for data on breakthrough cases? See our reporting on the latest available statistics.]
Students “would benefit socially/emotionally from mask removal,” she said. “Some of our students have never been in school with the ability to see their classmates’ faces, or their teachers.”
In at least one district, the loosening of restrictions has proved controversial. In the Montpelier-Roxbury School District, where three of the district’s four schools boast vaccination rates above 80%, some students held a walkout Wednesday to protest the lifting of mandates.
About 15 students marched from Montpelier High School to City Hall on Wednesday morning, holding signs reading “Safety before normalcy” and “Masks protect all of us.”
“When I originally heard that they were dropping the mask mandate, I knew something that needed to be done because they did not consult anybody else in the actual schools,” said Isabelle Shrout, a sophomore at Montpelier High and one of the organizers of the protest.
Shrout, whose mother is immunocompromised, pushed back against Scott’s assertion that schools should lift Covid restrictions to improve students’ mental health during the pandemic.
“It’s very ignorant that they are prioritizing going back to ‘normal,’ instead of putting our safety and our family safety first, and I think it is highly irresponsible,” she said.
Erin Petenko contributed to this report.
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