Northeast Kingdom school districts are already dealing with a COVID-19 surge.

Now, a policy shift is looming.

Dan French, the Vermont Secretary of Education, last week previewed new guidance which would end school-based contact tracing and surveillance testing, and introduce test-at-home protocols.

More specific information is expected by mid-week.

In a memo to superintendents, French said, the new policy “not only reduces the burden on schools, but also has the support of Vermont’s infectious disease experts and pediatricians. Put more directly, this transition is based on sound science.”

French explained that prior mitigation measures were too slow to detect and contain the highly contagious Omicron variant, which has become the predominant strain in New England.

“Many of the strategies that previously were effective for us will cease to be useful (if they haven’t already) and will instead become a drain on scarce resources without a clear public health benefit,” French said.

According to the memo, the new policy will rely on home test kits which would be distributed through schools.

When a student tests positive, their unvaccinated classmates, teachers, and other students they come in close contact with (siblings, friends, etc.) would be required to home-test for up to five days. If they test negative, they can continue attending school.

However, there are questions if the state can meet the demand for test kits.

The Kingdom East School District had planned to do in-school testing last week to avoid a post-holiday surge. They could not, however, because a late fall delivery of test kits had expired and a recent shipment was too small.

Unable to test, the school district instead required large numbers of staff and students to quarantine. That included more than 20 staff per day at Lyndon Town School, and 40% of student cohorts across the entire district.

As a result, all of the Lyndon Town School, most of the Concord School, and between two and five grades at the remaining KESD schools (Burke, Lunenburg, Miller’s Run, Newark, Sutton) will begin this week in remote learning.

“We can’t do testing if we don’t have the test kits,” said Superintendent Jen Botzojorns.

When reports began circulating last week that the Agency of Education would be announcing new COVID protocols, Botzojorns heard a mixed response from parents.

Some wanted the new home-testing measures implemented as quickly as possible, to reduce interruptions for working households.

Others were alarmed, and felt the new procedures would negatively impact student, staff and community health. The draft policy exempts vaccinated students and staff from quarantine.

“Parents are just very frustrated because they want to work and be able to do what they need to do. They’re really struggling, some parents, in terms of their employers and the care they need to provide when we can’t have school open,” Botzojorns said. “And then, at the same time, you have some parents that are like ‘This is really scary to not be contact tracing anymore, I don’t know if I want my child to be in school.’ So it runs both sides, and everything in between.”

Those wanting a fast transition to home-testing are asked to be patient, because supply chain issues could slow the process, and those concerned with public health impacts are asked to trust state officials, who created the new policy with the support of Vermont’s infectious disease experts and pediatricians.

Botzojorns noted that state and federal guidelines have been constantly changing during the pandemic, and that parents and families should look for more information from the school district in the coming days. The matter will be discussed at the next KESD school board meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

“It will be a fluid situation,” Botzojorns said.

LYNDON INSTITUTE

In a social media post, Lyndon Institute announced it would not have school Monday “due to the number of local Covid cases, the new school guidance information expected from the Agency of Education, and the closure of local elementary schools and daycare centers.”

“These factors have had an impact on our teachers. Many will need some of this time to take care of their own children. Teachers will use this time to prepare in the event we need to go remote.”

LI plans to reopen on Tuesday pending further information from the Agency of Education and/or the Department of Health.

ST. JOHNSBURY SCHOOL

The St. Johnsbury School sent a letter to families on Sunday, alerting them to the proposed state changes.

Superintendent Dr. Brian Ricca wrote that school officials met over the weekend to discuss the matter and would continue discussion at a Leadership Team meeting on Monday.

He explained that “The rationale for this change of guidance is that the course of Omicron is shorter than other variants of COVID-19. Pediatricians in Vermont were a part of this conversation and agreed with the change. This was also done in anticipation of the surge - we would not be able to keep up with the increase in positive cases.”

He added, “We are all a part of a rapidly changing landscape in our world. Please bear with us as we respond to these changes and future ones to come. Know that we will review the new directives carefully and be transparent about what will happen.”

Due to rising COVID levels, Ricca said St. Johnsbury School was approaching its capacity for Test To Stay, and additional close contacts may be required to quarantine at home. In addition, staffing issues may require classes to go remote.

“If we cannot staff our school safely, we will announce a closure, like we would a snow day. The Secretary of Education has assured us that any days that schools are closed for staffing issues related to COVID-19 will be waived and will not need to be made up at the end of the school year,” he wrote.

ORLEANS CENTRAL SUPERVISORY UNION

In a social media post, Superintendent Penny Chamberlin said existing COVID procedures will continue until new guidance is released by the state.

“At that time, I will reach out again to you with updated procedures for the OCSU schools moving forward based on the official guidance,” she wrote. “The OCSU administrative team and COVID coordinators have been working all weekend on reviewing data and our procedures. We are well-positioned to continue Test to Stay in all of our schools for faculty, staff and students until we receive additional guidance from the state. We will then adjust our procedures based on that guidance.”

CALEDONIA CENTRAL SUPERVISORY UNION

CCSU Superintendent Mark Tucker told the Peacham School board on Jan. 6 that their supervisory union — which oversees Danville, Barnet, Waterford, Peacham, Walden, Cabot and Twinfield School — was faring better than he had feared following the holiday break.

“Maybe it’s going to catch up with us, maybe next week is our week, but right now we are doing pretty good,” said Tucker.

Tucker explained that the SU had only identified seven positive cases that week, four of which were found during the weekly opt-in surveillance testing of staff and students.

Danville School Co-Principals David Schilling and Sarah Welch addressed the ongoing and increasing stress of the pandemic in a letter sent to staff on Jan. 3, 2022.

“[The recent surge of COVID-19 cases] certainly throws our profession for a loop, especially when combined with rapid and uncertain changes in protocols at the state level,” they wrote. “What we do know is that we’re simply giving it our best.”

“Our biggest concern at the leadership level is staffing - we know this will be tricky as more and more of us are identified as close contacts,” Schilling and Welch wrote. “To this, we simply request that you hold yourself, and those around you, to a standard of grace, not perfection. […] We need each other tremendously, and the immense strength and talent of this staff will carry us through … if we create the space to allow it to do so.”

Staff Writer Katherine Fiegenbaum contributed to this report.

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