Editorial: With children in school, one issue dominates

As Congress grills the Biden administration on its troubled withdrawal from Afghanistan, as small businesses throughout Vermont and many parts of the nation struggle to hire enough employees to keep their businesses open, as housing prices rise and millions of Americans can’t find affordable solutions, as the climate crisis magnifies, or as any other of a number of issues arise, there’s one pressing issue that dominates all others if you are a parent with children in school: whether your school and state will do what’s necessary to keep students safe from the coronavirus.

Specifically, whether to mask or not — and for how long — is top of mind. And whereas states like Vermont drew high praise and overwhelming support from residents during the first year of the pandemic, 18 months later state and public institutions are coming under fire for what some of the public feels is a less than adequate response.

As an example, here are excerpts from a recent commentary by Rep. Erin Brady, Chittenden-2, who also serves on the Champlain Valley School District Board and teaches high school social studies, as well as being a mother of two children under 12: “When the pandemic first started and parents were commiserating about the immense challenges of schools being shut down and navigating “remote learning,” I was optimistic that a silver lining of this awful pandemic would be a new level of commitment to schools, teachers and staff. My experience now tells me that the exact opposite may be true. 

“Schools are one of the few community institutions almost all families are still connected to during this pandemic, and they have often become the object of criticism and second-guessing. When administrators have to close classrooms due to Covid-19 cases or keep them closed because test results are delayed and contact tracing is cumbersome, it is often the schools that are scrutinized rather than our infrastructure for responding to the pandemic or our community measures to suppress it…

“I am concerned we are not doing enough to protect our children and keep our schools open,” Brady continued. “My son is one of many students who are at home in quarantine right now. By the third week of school, several classrooms in Williston were shut down due to positive COVID cases and the same is true in many communities around the state. Those who do not have school-age children or whose classrooms have mercifully stayed open thus far may not realize how quickly this situation is heading in the wrong direction.”

Rep. Brady goes on to say that she is “disappointed that reinstating a universal masking mandate in order to protect our children seems to be too much to ask of Vermonters. ”

It’s not an unreasonable complaint. She’s not only concerned about the safety of school children, but also of the value — to students and their parents — of keeping students in class and not back at home learning remotely.

She concludes: “I wear a lot of education ‘hats’ because I am passionate about public education as an important means to create a more just and equitable society. I am anxious to be working on improving student outcomes, expanding early childhood education and better supporting Vermonters as they transition from high school to their post-secondary futures. Right now though, I am most concerned about my own sons going to school, being able to teach my high school students in person and the schools in our state being open. Clear statewide guidance, strong requirements around community tools like masking and unified messaging from state officials are important tools to protect our children and keep our schools open.”

As rational as that argument is, it is not without retort.

The state’s response was to extend the masking requirement at public schools from the first 10 days of school through Oct. 4, pending what state officials say might be a further extension of that recommendation if the Delta Variant continues its infectious spread. They argue that declaring a state of emergency (which is necessary to mandate that all schools comply with a state masking order) is not necessary at this time because Vermont’s vaccination rate is high, its hospitalization rate is modest and its death rate from the disease remains low — plus the vast majority of schools are complying with the mask recommendation. State officials are also assuming school districts will work hand-in-hand with state resources to vaccinate students under 12 as quickly as possible when the CDC approves that option.

Until then, let common sense prevail without putting undue restrictions on businesses and community life.

The key here is to let common sense prevail — something that Vermonters seem to be able to do. To that end, we all should, as long as the Delta Variant is ascendant, be masking when going indoors to area businesses; get vaccinated; social distance whenever possible and don’t be a part of large group gatherings inside. But we also need to avoid mandating policies that make it difficult to operate businesses. It’s not likely that more government bailouts are forthcoming and we need our business communities to survive. That’s the fine line Gov. Scott and his administration are walking and, for now, it’s the appropriate tact.

The good news is there are signs that the Delta Variant cases are peeking in the state and could be on the decline. Vermonters can help by being especially cautious over the next few weeks (mask up, don’t attend large indoor events, social distance, wash your hands) until the case numbers significantly decline. The pay-off — being able to keep children in class, have teachers focus on study plans instead of safety, have hospitals devote resources to non-pandemic illnesses, and have a little bit of a social life — is well worth it.

Angelo Lynn

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Addison County Independent