On Friday, the House Education Committee discussed new rules that schools must follow under the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions, which haven’t changed since October. Among other things, vaccinated and unvaccinated students may have different guidelines.
Ted Fisher, the director of Communications and Legislative Affairs for the Agency of Education, spoke about the updated version of the Strong and Healthy Start to Safety and Health Guidance for Vermont Schools. These changes will apply for the rest of this school year.
“We’re working to make changes to this document to streamline, reduce complexity, and … lift requirements,” Fisher told the committee members.
Among several changes, schools are no longer required to ask students a series of health-related questions at entrances as students enter the buildings each morning. Schools may, however, have parents fill out a form before or upon arrival at school. Questions continue to include if the student or family member has traveled out of state and if anyone shows any signs of being sick. Fisher suggested they may soon include questions on vaccination status.
“There have been some questions about what the requirements will be in terms of vaccinations in various sectors, I think right now the recommendation is that people do get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible, but there is no requirement to do so,” Fisher said.
“I’ve heard mention of the term ‘vaccine passports’ when it comes to travel; I will just note that, from a human resources perspective, there’s no requirement that folks be vaccinated as a school staff. I don’t believe that will be a requirement in the future, but I can’t say what the future will hold.”
Fisher noted that there is currently no approved COVID-19 vaccine for children ages under age 16. He also indicated that families who choose to vaccinate their children, and the parents that do not, may be treated differently with regard to freedoms and access to public education.
“Staff and students and their families should complete an exposure and symptoms screening before departing for school, anyone who has been exposed to COVID-19 unless vaccinated or they have COVID-19 symptoms then they should not come to school,” he said.
Staff who choose not to vaccinate may be subject to surveillance.
“We are continuing our surveillance testing for school staff, although as more and more education staff become vaccinated that surveillance system will be for staff who remain unvaccinated,” Fisher said.
Nationally, there is some pushback against using vaccination status as a right of access for public services. On April 8, Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., presented the “No Vaccine Passports Act” to prevent the federal government from creating any such ID.
Other policy updates include students can now come within 3 feet of each other instead of 6 feet as before. Fisher said there will be relaxed capacity restrictions for communal spaces, and students are still expected to wear masks and keep their distance. COVID-19 regulations should no longer be dictating which sanitation products that schools must use.
Schools will no longer require the formation of cohorts and pods for younger students, and volunteers will be allowed into the school buildings again — but they are still closed to visitors.
Fisher said if schools want to have stricter health standards than what the state is requiring, they are allowed to do so.
Toward the end of the hearing, Rep. Sarah Austin, D-Colchester, asked how schools might use summer time to make up for the loss of learning in the past year. Fisher responded that such plans to catch students up this summer are currently coming together.