MONTPELIER — The Vermont Agency of Education released guidelines Friday for graduations and school events that closely mirror guidelines in the state’s reopening plan.
The announcement came during Gov. Phil Scott’s press conference Friday updating the public on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, during which state officials said they are awaiting word from the federal government regarding the pause in use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“It will be closer to normal, certainly than last year,” said Secretary of Education Dan French.
French also announced that, after three weeks with no positive cases among staff in Vermont schools, the state’s surveillance testing program would end going into May. He said the AOE is working with the Department of Health on a new pilot testing program for summer programs, and will have updates in the coming weeks.
Here are a few key takeaways from Friday’s press conference:
French said the AOE guidance on graduations and school events, including end of year ceremonies, closely follows guidance laid out in the Vermont Forward Plan. For schools with graduations in May, that means following step two of the guidance.
“Schools obviously have to do what they think is best,” Scott said.
The guidance states that face coverings may be removed to deliver speeches or accept diplomas.
Under phase two of the Vermont Forward Plan, which begins May 1, indoor gatherings including one unvaccinated person for every 100 square feet up to 150 are allowed, plus any number of vaccinated people. Outdoor gatherings would be restricted to 300, plus any number of vaccinated people.
"Schools should utilize some means of self-attestation to determine the vaccination status of all individuals attending end of school year events," the AOE guidance states.
Phase three of the plan begins June 1, and would increase the indoor gathering limits to 1 person per 50 square feet up to 300, or 900 people outdoors, plus any vaccinated individuals.
The Vermont Forward Plan also puts in place universal guidelines, which include public health measures such as physical distancing and mask wearing.
Under the graduation guidance, end of year field trips to in-state destinations are allowed, as well as proms and other social events. Dancing during these events is allowed as long as participants wear masks. Out-of-state field trips are discouraged, under the guidance.
Students participating in graduation will be considered vaccinated if they have received their requisite doses two weeks ahead of the event.
“This has been a long year for students in our schools, and we want to do whatever we can to make sure school ends in a safe and celebratory way,” French said.
Johnson & Johnson vaccine
Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advisory committee on immunization practices’ meeting would last most of Friday, and that the committee’s recommendation will go to the CDC and Food and Drug Administration for a final decision.
“I fully expect a definitive decision today,” Levine said.
Use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was paused two weeks ago due to blood clotting issues in six women across the country who were given the vaccine. Scott said that even if use of the vaccine remains paused, the state is still on track to have 60% of Vermonters vaccinated with at least one dose by May 1, in line with the state’s reopening plan.
According to Jenney Samuelson, deputy secretary of the Agency of Human Services, if given the all clear to lift the pause, the state would be ready to resume administering doses Tuesday, and could announce plans as early as Saturday. Scott said the state currently has under 1,000 doses, but would learn more about future allocations during the weekly call with the White House on Tuesday.
Samuelson also announced that vaccine registration would open up to out-of-state college students and part-time residents on Thursday, April 29.
Summer programs update
Scott said he and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., met with school district superintendents in the past week regarding how they intend to build out summer programs as part of the state’s Summer Matters initiative, which is utilizing federal COVID relief funding. Scott said there are currently more than 400 program offerings listed on the Vermont Afterschool website, though some of the programs are looking for staff.
“This is a great opportunity to step up for our youth,” Scott said, noting that there is a page on the Vermont Afterschool website for job openings.
French said 10% of the $285 million will be going to the AOE for state level planning, while the remaining funding will be distributed to Vermont’s school districts for summer program implementation.
Cases trending down
Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine reported a 36% decline in cases in the last two weeks, with the positivity rate decreasing to 1.2%.
“While illness among anyone is always a concern, we appear to be on a better overall trajectory at this time,” he said.
However, Levine noted that national data shows the B.1.1.7 variant comprised 45% of circulating virus in the two weeks ending March 27, and well over 50% of the Vermont specimens sent for genome sequencing came back with that variant.
Levine said he is still optimistic though, as case numbers would be increasing if the variants present in the state were capable of evading the vaccines.