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ANWSD stays in-person despite COVID-19 cases

We have a lot of parents that have concerns and are keeping their students home, which is a parent’s prerogative. There are an equal number of parents, I would say, that are saying please keep schools in-person, it means a lot to my child.
— Superintendent Sheila Soule

VERGENNES — Although two Vergennes Union Elementary School students have recently tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and one VUES class has gone to remote learning, school officials said the Addison Northwest School District will continue in-person education.
ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule and other ANWSD administrators took that position in emails sent out to students’ families on Sunday and Monday, and Soule reinforced the message at Monday’s district board meeting.
Sunday’s email to families, including school principals and central office administrators in its signature line, acknowledged the district had to that point eight cases among staff and students since September. It did not include the ninth case revealed at VUES on Monday.
Soule then told the board on Monday the two cases at VUES are almost certainly not related, meaning the district still has not seen “schoolwide spread” this school year.
“It is very unlikely this case is connected to the other positive case (at VUES). These people did not encounter each other in the building at all,” Soule said. “This is very likely to be another example of something that was a community-spread instance. So we do not believe this is a case of schoolwide spread in any way.”
She added, “There have been very few examples statewide of any school-based spread, and we have to date zero examples of school-based spread, as far as we know.”
Soule also told the board there were “a handful of cases” among students who did not return to school after the holiday break.
“We are aware of those. We are monitoring those,” Soule said. “Our nurses are consulting with individuals to make sure they don’t come to school unless and until COVID can be ruled out. This might include having a household member who has tested positive, or something to that effect.”
She also told the board the first VUES case became the first time school officials worked with the Vermont Board of Health to perform contact tracing. The district policy, shared by many other Vermont schools, of keeping students in pods has helped with that process, Soule said, and “a very few” people were contacted.
“The reason we’re keeping people in pods and small groups is to assist in contact tracing,” she said. “We’ve been doing a really good job of keeping those lists up to date and accurate.”
Sunday’s email from administrators also indirectly recognized the fears many area residents had that much of Addison County’s rise in cases was due to holiday gatherings at a church just up the hill from Vergennes Union High School, as did Soule at Monday’s board meeting. 
The email stated, “Many of you have contacted members of the administration over the past several days to express your concerns about the county-wide outbreak of COVID-19. Between this outbreak, and the case involving an individual who was in a school during their infectious period, many families are curious about what the schools are doing to address the situation and what we might be planning in the future.”
It concluded, “Naturally, the situation in Addison County is unnerving, however, our data do not support a shift to remote learning at this time.”
The email described how ANWSD officials worked with the Vermont Department of Health to make the decision to stay with in-person education using the following criteria, stating that DOH officials “will advise us accordingly if or when we must shift to remote learning:”
•  No or low COVID-19 activity in our school communities
•  Sufficient staffing to operate school
•  Sufficient student attendance rates
•  Ability to maintain compliance with the guidance from VDH/Agency of Education
•  Routines are efficient, effective, assessed, and adjusted to meet the needs
•  Vermont Department of Health guidance and data supports the ability to remain in-person for instruction.”
Soule also noted at Monday’s board meeting that student absenteeism after the December break tracked closely with that after the weeklong Thanksgiving vacation. Overall, she said it is hovering at well under 10%, while state standards say more than a 20% absenteeism rate is a trigger point.
Soule also said that ANWSD maintenance staff worked all weekend to disinfect every room in every ANWSD building. She also noted the work that school nurses are doing to prevent an outbreak:
“Our nurses have done an incredible job communicating with parents and staff; answering questions, and, when necessary, keeping staff and students from coming to school until COVID-19 can be ruled out,” the Sunday email stated.
Still, on Monday Soule told the board she understood the anxiety felt by families and staff members.
“We have a lot of parents that have concerns and are keeping their students home, which is a parent’s prerogative. There are an equal number of parents, I would say, that are saying please keep schools in-person, it means a lot to my child,” Soule said.
“There’s kind of pressure on both sides. In any case, we would want to do the right thing, not what we are pressured to do. So that’s why we’re doing what the Department of Health is recommending to us.”
The board responded by thanking teachers as well as nurses and maintenance workers, and Soule chipped in words of thanks and understanding for teachers, noting many were also parents.
“This is incredibly difficult for teachers,” she said. “They’ve got a lot of stress and pressure on them.”

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