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Mt. Abe student briefs Gov. Scott on COVID

LAST MONTH, IN her relatively new role as student representative to the State Board of Education, Mount Abraham Union High School 10th-grader and Monkton resident Angelita Pena helped brief Gov. Phil Scott on how Vermont’s high school students are handling hybrid and remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

All I can say is that people need to take this more seriously,” Pena said. “Stop going to bars. Stop going to the mall. That can wait... You’re not just hurting yourself, you’re hurting the whole community here.
— Angelita Pena

MONKTON — Mount Abraham Union High School 10th-grader Angelita Pena was selected as a student representative to the State Board of Education in the middle of a global pandemic, so it’s no surprise that her first major project in that role was to help collect and analyze data about how Vermont students are navigating school in the time of COVID.
Between Oct. 5 and 17, Pena and her fellow student representative, Sabina Brochu, who attends Champlain Valley Union High School, led an effort to survey more than 1,000 students in nine different Vermont high schools about their experiences with hybrid and remote learning.
A week before Thanksgiving, Pena and Brochu presented their findings to the Board of Education, then briefed Gov. Phil Scott and other state officials, remotely, during the governor’s Nov. 19 press conference.
In general, students feel that school is going better this fall — when most are attending in-person classes two days a week and learning remotely the other three — than it went last spring, after schools shut down suddenly and everyone was thrust, unprepared, into full-time remote learning.
The majority of students also feel at least somewhat protected from the coronavirus while in school.
“At my school, for the most part, everyone’s on board (with health safety guidance),” Pena told the Independent the day before Thanksgiving. “We all wear masks. None of us are anti-maskers or anything like that.”
Pena also told the governor that the sanitizing practices at Mount Abe, which is part of the Mount Abraham Unified School District, were particularly good.
In terms of the survey results, “I wasn’t surprised by what I saw,” Pena told the Independent. “At that time, things weren’t as scary, so I wasn’t expecting many students to fear getting sick.”
Pena was referring to the fact that, in mid-October, when the survey was conducted, Vermont was averaging 11 new cases of COVID-19 per day. But by Nov. 19, when Pena and Brochu briefed the governor, that number had climbed to more than 100.
At the same time, state health officials were predicting a possible surge in new cases — enough to almost double the state’s cumulative case count, which was approaching 4,000 before Thanksgiving — if Vermonters traveled out of state for the holiday or held multi-household gatherings despite new statewide prohibitions on such activities.
“I’m scared to go to school after Thanksgiving break,” Brochu said at the press conference. “I don’t know that I want to go into that building, because I know for a fact that there are going to be kids that are going to travel and get exposed and possibly bring it to school, and I don’t want to bring that home to my family.”
By the time Pena spoke to the Independent, state numbers had eased somewhat, but cases had begun appearing in local schools, including one at a school in her district, Starksboro’s Robinson Elementary.
Such cases were entirely expected and there is no cause for alarm at this time, county school district officials have said.
Pena is friends with someone whose sibling at Robinson was undergoing quarantine and testing as a close contact, she said.
“When people would ask me if I know anyone who has COVID, I used to say ‘no.’ But now, yeah, I’ve probably seen them around. Whoever the person is, it’s probably someone you know. You might not know what their name is, but you know them.”
So far, she’s been able to manage the stress of the pandemic pretty well, she said.
“I think in general I’m a pretty chill person, so I’m not getting anxiety over it. All I’m doing is hoping that more people don’t get sick in our district.”
Pena planned to resume in-person classes at Mount Abe after Thanksgiving, she said, but she might be tempted to change her mind if people in her school start testing positive. Like Brochu, she doesn’t want to bring it home to her family.
“My mom, who is also an educator, is going through something right now where she can’t afford to get sick at all.”

SURGE UPON A SURGE
This past weekend, federal health officials warned that as a result of holiday travel and gatherings, the U.S. could see a “surge on top of a surge” in new cases. 
The current nationwide surge began in late October and has shattered records set during the first surge this summer. Since setting a daily record of 194,979 new cases on Nov. 27, the U.S. has averaged 153,056 cases a day — more than twice the average daily rate between March 3 and Oct. 23.
But it can take a week or more after infection for COVID-19 to show up in testing, so there is no way at this time to assess any effects from Thanksgiving activities.
Though she didn’t mention it at the governor’s press conference, Pena has said in private meetings she believes Vermont should shut schools down for two weeks, just to be on the safe side.
“Let people quarantine,” she told the Independent. “It’s not that long. It’s two weeks. For me that’s four days of school I’m missing. The only way we’re going to get through this is if we keep people home.”
Pena didn’t recommend this to Gov. Scott or to Secretary of Education Dan French, however, because “I recognize as a student representative I have to represent everyone and not just myself.” Many students are struggling with remote learning, and some are failing, she said, and she recognized their need to attend in-person classes as much as possible.
At the governor’s press conference, Pena and Brochu presented data and anecdotal evidence of students who are falling behind because of limited in-person contact, which the Independent will explore in a future article.
For now, like many of their fellow Vermonters, the student reps are crossing their fingers and urging their neighbors to stay home and stay safe.
“All I can say is that people need to take this more seriously,” Pena said. “Stop going to bars. Stop going to the mall. That can wait… You’re not just hurting yourself, you’re hurting the whole community here. You’re hurting the whole state.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]

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