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Vermont schools to close

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MONTPELIER — Vermont schools are ordered to shut down as state officials respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Phil Scott announced a "continuity of education plan" Sunday for the orderly dismissal of all schools and cancellation of all school-related activities no later than Wednesday. The directive will last through April 6 but could last longer, according to a news release.

No student is required to attend school Monday or Tuesday if their parent or guardian would rather keep them home. But education professionals are expected to come in to help with school dismissal efforts.

"This decision is based on the best scientific evidence available to the experts at the Vermont Department of Health," Health Commissioner Mark Levine said in the release. "Closing schools at the end of the day Tuesday is another important step to help keep us ahead of the curve, in terms of preventing and reducing spread of COVID-19."

Late Sunday afternoon, Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Lyle Holiday announced that all schools in the district, including Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney and Vernon, will be closed Monday.

Scott described the dismissal of schools as "essential" to supporting the state's response and the needs of children and family. He is asking the Vermont Agency of Education to work with superintendents and school districts to ensure children continue to get the services they need and assignments to keep up their academic studies.

His plan calls for continuing meal services for those who need it and services for children with disabilities and special needs, and working to meet childcare needs for healthcare workers and those responding to the pandemic.

"We need local government — and especially our schools and educators — to lend their capable hands and their enormous hearts in this effort," he said in the release. "It is very important to the overall response."

Details on the plan came a day after Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French recommended keeping schools open in a letter to school officials. At the time, he said that all penalties for truancy have been waived so parents could keep their children out of school if they wanted.

His concerns mainly involved the effect on healthcare workers and students who have special needs or rely on school for much of their food.

As of 1:56 p.m. Sunday, the Vermont Department of Health said its laboratory has reported four confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Vermonters and four cases among non-residents. As of Saturday, the department counted 227 Vermonters who tested negative, 191 who were being monitored and 131 who completed monitoring.

School officials were thanked by French for managing "the COVID-19 crisis."

"There is no doubt this is an unusual and concerning time for boards, administrators, teachers, parents and students," he wrote. "It is essential that we model the calm, compassionate leadership that the Governor has called for in this moment of service. That means decisions like how we approach school closures need to be coordinated, based on facts, sound science, and most importantly in a case like this, what is going to be most effective in our overall effort to protect Vermonters."

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Prior to Scott's announcement Sunday afternoon, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said he would directing all schools in his state to begin offering remote learning right away.

An annual meeting for the Windham Southeast School District scheduled for Tuesday was cancelled. Board Chairwoman Kristina Naylor told the Reformer the meeting will be convened then all business will be postponed until a later date.

"It feels undemocratic to the board to attempt to hold a meeting where anyone at risk (older people, pregnant people, anyone with health issues) would be unable to vote on a $50 million budget and there is no way to do a floor vote remotely," she said in an email response to the Reformer. "Also, the schools are closed to any outside visitors, so it is an exception to have any public in the building."

Naylor said the decision would allow the board more flexibility in rescheduling and new board members can be seated.

In a letter to families sent Thursday, Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Lyle Holiday said teachers were getting work ready to send home if necessary.

Elias Gradinger, a sophmore at Brattleboro Union High School, created a petition on change.org on behalf of the student council calling for a closure of the school. More than 960 people signed as of 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

"Obviously the petition won't close the school, but we hope it will show those in charge how important the topic is to all of us," Gradinger wrote to the Reformer.

The petition says the spread of the virus needs to be slowed "to allow our hospital to give proper treatment to the patients who need it and not become overwhelmed with patients suffering from COVID-19."

"Vermont needs to be proactive and slow the spreading which allows local hospitals to properly deal with the potentially deadly virus," the petition says. "We need to follow other states lead in closing schools ..."

In a letter to the editor addressed to Gov. Scott, Dena Moses of Putney said leaving the schools open would be dangerous to the entire community.

In a letter Friday to staff and families, Bennington-based Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Superintendent James Culkeen said administrators were looking at options if schools were shut down.

"Alternative Structured Learning Days, assignment packets, online learning, reading lists and other developmentally appropriate learning activities are all part of a list of options we are exploring," he wrote. "It is important we plan for continuity for our students."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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