Mike Smith press conference 1/8/21

Mike Smith, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services, speaks during a press conference Friday updating the public on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

MONTPELIER — Vermont’s secretary of education said he is targeting a spring return for full in-person education statewide during an update on the state’s COVID-19 response Friday.

Secretary of Education Dan French said a draft planning template has been created, and that school districts will be required to submit a recovery plan that will be enacted in coordination with federal coronavirus relief dollars.

The state has added more first responders to the initial phase of vaccinations, five state prisons have adopted some sort of lockdown measure due to positive cases among staff, and a video shared widely online of a bus full of Vermonters heading to the nation’s capital was a frequent topic of discussion.

Here are some key takeaways from Friday’s press conference:

In-person education

French said the seven-day positivity rate among the state’s schools remains at 0.17%, which is far lower than the state’s 2.9% rate.

Given the low rate, French set an “aspirational goal” of moving toward statewide in-person education in the spring.

“As the conditions improve in the coming months … we expect most schools will be able to return to in-person instruction after April vacation,” French said.

French said it is expected the state will receive $167 million for education aid from the recently passed federal coronavirus relief bill — $34 million toward higher education and $133 million toward K-12 public education.

“My initial impression is the funds are going to put us in a really good position,” French said.

According to state Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine, the two vaccines approved for emergency use — from Pfizer and Moderna — cannot be used for anyone younger than 16, taking student vaccinations largely off the table for the time being.

French said that mandatory vaccination of teachers is not being considered in the push for in-person instruction at the moment. He said roughly 75% of Vermont’s schools have opened using a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning.

He said there has been a doubling of in-person education at the elementary level after the initial reopening period.

“We have quite a bit of in-person going,” French said.

The bus to DC

After video of a group of Vermonters on a bus heading to Washington, D.C., to take part in a protest against Congress’ certification of Joe Biden’s election went viral, state officials said the bus company was contacted to warn the occupants to quarantine and be tested upon their return to the state.

According to a post on the Vermonters for Vermont Facebook page, the bus left Burlington on Tuesday and made stops in Vergennes and Rutland on the way to the capital. In the video, occupants on the bus could be seen occupying every seat on the bus without masks on. Levine said that unless there is a positive case, the state doesn’t have the regulatory power to enforce quarantine.

“What we’re really asking for is what we’ve asked all Vermonters to do from the beginning,” Levine said of the occupants.

Public Safety Commissioner Mike Schirling said the state has no “comprehensive list” of people on the bus. Schirling also said charter buses such as the one used by the Vermonters in the video have a 50% capacity limit.

“We will reach back out to the bus company and have an educational conversation on that,” Schirling said.

Vaccinations

Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, said about 4,500 emergency responders, who were not initially part of Phase 1A, have been added to that phase because they respond to and render aid at accident scenes and 911 calls. He said there was no decision to exclude this group when the phase was first being drafted.

“If anything we thought it was an oversight,” he said.

Once Phase 1A is complete, Phase 1B will proceed, vaccinating about 49,000 Vermonters in the 75 or older age group. Once that group is vaccinated, those in age group 65 or older will receive the vaccine, with the next youngest group following, and so on. Smith said the hope is these groups would be vaccinated by spring.

Smith reported that Vermont’s distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations has been among the best in the nation. According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccine tracker, Vermont ranks second in doses distributed per 100,000 population.

Smith said that despite the good news, the state must keep pushing vaccine distribution. The state reported 202 new cases and one new death on Friday, continuing a trend of higher case counts in recent days.

“We need to keep accelerating our pace of vaccinations, even as supplies remain uneven and often disappointing,” he said.

This may change at the federal level, as President-elect Joe Biden has indicated he may push for second doses to be given to states sooner. Levine said the federal government currently holds a dose in reserve for every dose it sends out, as two doses are needed for a person to be fully vaccinated.

Levine said sending as many doses as possible rather than reserving second doses would put the onus on the state to make sure second doses are administered correctly. He said he likes the idea of getting as many doses as possible, “but would like reassurance that manufacturing is matching that.”

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