MONTPELIER — State officials say K-12 schools can move to “Step 3” Saturday which means the fall sports season can start this weekend.
At Gov. Phil Scott’s Tuesday news conference, Dan French, state secretary of education, said schools are currently in “Step 2” which has more stringent rules for the operation of schools to help stop the spread of the virus. French said “Step 3” gives schools additional flexibility on how to implement those rules. He said school started in “Step 2” to get the rules in place, but the plan was to move up a step at the end of the month if the data supported doing so.
He said moving from one step to another depended on two variables: the overall state of the virus in Vermont and the ability of schools to implement the guidance from the Agency of Education.
French said there have been a handful of students who have tested positive for the virus after schools opened earlier this month. But he said it appears the students are bringing the virus with them, and it has not been transmitted to others yet.
The secretary said the agency measures how the guidance is being implemented by speaking to principals and superintendents across the state.
“Based on our review of these considerations, we are announcing all schools be placed on Step 3 effective Sept. 26, which is this Saturday. We decided to make the transition date on Saturday since the change in step level is also connected to our sports guidance,” he said.
French said schools in “Step 3” are allowed to play sports against each other. He said the fall sports season has already been cut short by the pandemic so state officials wanted to let athletes play this weekend.
For school operations, the secretary said moving to “Step 3” does not mean relaxing the rules put in place. He said those at schools are still supposed to stay home if they are sick, complete a daily health check, practice social distancing and wear a mask.
But the secretary said schools will be able to again use common areas such as gyms and cafeterias. He said these spaces must be cleaned after each use and group size is limited.
French said schools will also have the ability to group students with other students under “Step 3,” such as letting high school students group together based on the subject being taught. Currently schools are required to keep the same group of students together throughout the day.
Scott said he expects the reaction to this news to be similar to other actions taken to open other events during the coronavirus pandemic. The governor said some will think the state is moving too quickly, while others say it’s moving too slowly.
“I get it. We’ve all been living with so much uncertainty since March. Everything about our lives has been turned upside down. As we wait for a vaccine, we don’t know how long we’re going to be in this position. And all of this, plus the alarming things we’ve seen in other parts of the country and the detrimental impact to our economy, creates fear,” Scott said.
Scott said Vermonters have fear when it comes to their jobs, keeping businesses open, and if kids are falling behind in their education.
“I understand all that. But please know, we keep these concerns in mind every day and with every decision,” he said, adding Vermont’s approach has worked with the state leading the country in suppressing the virus that causes COVID-19.
Police Chief Brian Kilcullen has signed on for another five years.
The Board of Aldermen voted Monday night to ratify the chief’s new contract, which sees him through 2025.
The new contract includes a clause that Kilcullen “shall not be required to enforce any federal law that is in conflict with any duly enacted state or local law.” Police Commission Chairman Sean Sargent said he and Kilcullen pushed for the inclusion of that clause.
“Increasingly, there is a divide between state and federal laws,” Sargent said. “For instance, marijuana usage is unlawful on the national level. In Vermont — I’m going to use the word ‘decriminalized.’ Would it be fair for the Police Commission to hold the chief accountable for enforcing federal marijuana laws.”
While jurisdictional disputes between federal and local authorities have popped up in several parts of the country regarding immigration, Sargent said that issue was not part of the thinking.
“I suppose it could be applied in any place where laws conflict,” Sargent said.
Kilcullen’s new contract puts his salary at $122,720, with increases mirroring those of other department heads. In 2015, he started at $110,011, with increases tied to those in the police union contract. The contract includes five weeks of vacation as well, an accrual of eight hours of sick time per month, a $100 a month cellphone allowance and a $600 a year clothing allowance.
“I can’t tell you how pleased I am that Chief Kilcullen and the City have come together to extend his contract for five more years,” Mayor David Allaire said in a prepared statement released on Tuesday. “The Chief has provided excellent leadership for the Department, but more importantly, has become a highly respected member of our community. He is a fixture at community events, and has developed relationships with City residents that are so important in the times we live in. The City of Rutland is lucky to have Chief Kilcullen at the helm.”
Kilcullen arrived in 2015, taking over from James Baker, who was credited as having begun to reform the department after a series of scandals. Kilcullen said one of his first accomplishments was to finish work Baker had started on introducing data-driven policing to the department.
“We sort of restarted the bike patrol,” Kilcullen said. “Due to changes in personnel over the time, that comes and goes. ... The push has been to encourage our officers to participate in community events.”
That has included holding community events, like when officers recently brought pizza and lawn games to Meadow Street Park. Kilcullen said familiarity between officers and members of the community creates a different dynamic when officers respond to calls in the community, though results can be hard to measure.
“I can tell you we have a particular family that’s well known to the police over multiple generations,” he said. “We developed a relationship with a particular child in that household. It’s tough to measure; it’s anecdotal, but the hope is the older siblings see that interaction and it changes the perception of our role in the community.”
While crime rate trends have been largely encouraging in recent years, a University of Vermont study released last month indicated the department is lagging behind in one area — a black driver pulled over in Rutland is almost five times as likely to get searched as a while one.
Kilcullen said he still has not had time to analyze all the report’s data to his satisfaction.
“What I want to take from it is training to address some of the concerns of the report,” he said. “The analysis of the data is, I think, beyond our skill set. Going forward, I think we’ll be reaching out to others to help us understand it. We want to address the concerns in the report.”
The department continues to struggle to reach full staffing levels as well. Kilcullen said they have 35 officers for a budgeted 39 — to which the department was cut from 40 officers after failing to reach full staffing for several years.
“We’re not lowering our standards because of the difficulty of finding the right candidate,” Kilcullen said. “I think, certainly, our standards are high, but I think everyone is having the same difficulty. It’s not limited to Vermont.”
The shift to remote and hybrid learning in schools across the state has made disruptions in internet service more noticeable and inconvenient than ever.
Since March, many Vermonters have been learning and working from home as consequence of the coronavirus pandemic. Along the way, the state has been forced to confront the spotty, unreliable and, sometimes, nonexistent broadband connectivity in its many rural communities.
According to Clay Purvis, director of the Telecommunications and Connectivity Division of the Vermont Department of Public Service (PSD), there are nearly 70,000 locations across the state with broadband download/upload speeds below 25/3 megabytes per second (mbps), the minimum standard set by the Federal Communications Commission. Another 18,000 have speeds below 4/1 mbps.
This spring PSD worked with Vermont K-12 schools to identify around 7,000 student residences that were underserved or unserved by broadband.
The department used that data to prioritize getting service to those locations while schools scrambled to provide workarounds, including distributing wireless hotspots that accessed the internet via cellphone signal.
In the spring, Rutland City Public Schools partnered with VTel to give out dozens of such devices to students.
However, sometimes the best option was to have families to travel to public wi-fi hubs in communities or on school grounds — an option that will become even less convenient once winter weather arrives.
Also, Purvis noted that affordability is a barrier for some families.
Early in the pandemic, some internet service providers were helping families log on quickly by waiving a month or two of service fees. Some ISPs like Comcast are still offering reduced rated for families based on income.
He said PSD is looking at a subsidy program that would pay qualifying individuals up to $20 a month for broadband.
But how is Vermont’s broadband infrastructure handling all the increased traffic?
Purvis said broadband networks have performed well overall and have not been overburdened.
He did note, however, that outages caused by storms or vehicle accidents may be “felt more heavily” since so people are using internet from a single location all day rather than moving between different networks.
Yet even with networks holding steady, major failures do occur.
Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union (RNESU) had such a failure in recent days.
Jeanne Collins, superintendent at Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, said schools in the district have experienced “intermittent” connectivity issues since the first week of school.
Those issues came to a head last Thursday and Friday when broadband was disrupted at all eight district schools, which serves the towns of Brandon, Pittsford, Leicester, Sudbury, Whiting, Chittenden and Mendon.
RNESU is holding in-person classes for grades K-2. Grades 3-12 are remote-only; however, about 300 students still attend school for remote-learning support. Teachers have the option to teach remotely from their classrooms as well.
On Monday, Collins advised those students and teachers to stay home. In-person classes in grades K-2 went ahead as planned.
The problem was internal, according to Alexis Blake, director of technology at NESU.
“Engineers found a fault in a vendor-provided internet filtering device,” she wrote in an email Monday. “The faulty equipment was bypassed and internet access is now working. Fortunately, we implemented a secondary filtering system over the summer which is in place and functioning normally.”
Blake said outside this recent issue, connectivity in buildings is otherwise “quite good.”
“We have quality, managed broadband for every location,” she said.
Blake said there have been some spikes in usage since March, but the SU was prepared.
“We increased our bandwidth last year, which has helped prevent these spikes from causing systemic issues in the buildings,” she said. “We are working with our vendors to boost the capacity to allow even greater flexibility when loads are particularly high.”
Collins said while she didn’t expect to be dealing with a major network issue so early in the school year, she sees it as a good test of the plan the administration has put in place.
“One of the reasons why we chose our plan … was that we wanted to make sure that kids and staff got good at remote learning,” Collins said.
She added that she expects outages and other unforeseen technological hiccups are inevitable.
“We all need to be prepared for that,” she said.
At Otter Valley Union Middle and High School in Brandon, Principal James Avery said about 100 students and roughly a dozen teachers were affected by the outage.
He said faculty members who were teaching from school scrambled to get home and reconnect.
“The kids who were here, we did our best to provide what we could provide or have them work on things that were they still were able to access,” he said. “But it certainly provided a challenge.”
Avery commended both faculty and students for their flexibility, calling it “remarkable.”
He said he expects a “large discussion” at his administration meeting this week, and acknowledged the need to develop a plan for how to best deal with future IT issues when the school shifts to hybrid learning and more students return to the classroom.
“I have a very dear friend who used to always say, ‘Technology will fail you when you need it the most.’”
Brian Hill, assistant superintendent and chief academic officer, Mill River Union Unified School District (MRUUSD) said the district has been “fairly lucky in terms of connectivity.”
MRUUSD serves the towns of Clarendon, Shrewsbury, Wallingford and Tinmouth.
The district reopened remote only in grades K-12.
He said data collected by PSD in the spring revealed that, despite its rural location, the majority of the district has broadband in the form of either cable or fiber.
The next step was to connect families lacking broadband and work with them and the PSD to get them connected and, if need be, figure out how to pay for service.
“Making broadband available is important, but making it affordable is almost just as important,” Hill wrote in a Tuesday email.
“As far as contingency plans go, we don’t have anything in place above and beyond our normal plans,” he said. “That is to say, if a major provider in our area lost connectivity for more than a day or two, we would struggle if we were all here in person, just as we’d struggle with everyone remote.”
In the Washington Central Unified Union School District, Technology Coordinator Keith McMartin said district infrastructure is doing “pretty well.”
“Our district actually had a project set up to go from last year to do a bandwidth increase over the summer anyway,” he said Tuesday. “So we actually ended up being in a really good position.”
WCUUSD serves the towns of Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Worcester and Middlesex.
The district reopened for in-person learning in grades K-8 and an alternating hybrid model in grades 9-12. There is also a fully remote option for all students.
Martin said the current plan has not put much additional load on bandwidth. He noted the district’s capacity benefits from using cloud-based software and apps that are not hosted on internal networks as well.
“The problems aren’t really at the school, because the school has the high-speed internet, we have the networking infrastructure, we’ve got an IT staff to handle any issues that come up,” Martin said. “The thing that we’re seeing more is sort of the typical Vermont rural infrastructure problem.”
“This whole thing has sort of underscored the need for better internet service.”
Purvis agrees and knows what it’s going to take to get there: “Money and time.”
He estimated that it would cost the state more than $300 million to get to adequate broadband to unserved and underserved locations and nearly $1 billion to bring fiber-optic access to every home.
“We’re doing everything we can to try to get as many people broadband as we can in the pandemic,” Purvis said.
Purvis said the public service department has received $17 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds to expand broadband, and has given out about $8 million in grants to broadband providers to do broadband projects to connect homes. He said he expects another $4 million more in the next few days.
“We’re working as fast as we can to get as many people broadband as possible,” Purvis said.
City land records are going online.
“Mortgages, deeds, transfers — anything to do, basically, with sale of property, real estate property” are being digitized and searchable on the internet, City Clerk Henry Heck said Tuesday.
Heck said the city started digitizing records in 2008, and got as far back as 2006 before the office got too busy to keep scanning older documents. He said the project will go back to 1980, covering the 40 years typically required by lawyers for a “complete records search.” While those will then be accessible via a portal on the city website, Heck said in-office searches will remain an option.
“Just because we’re online doesn’t mean people can’t or won’t have the opportunity to come in and search,” he said. “Some people are old-school.”
Heck said while online searching will be free, however, people will still have to pay a dollar per page to print anything out, just as they would in City Hall.
Heck said the project involves 260,000 pages of documents to be handled by New Hampshire-based digitization company Recordsforce, with the files then turned over to be uploaded by the city’s online vendor, Cott Systems Inc.
“They basically have to take 122 books from within our vault and scan the pages in,” he said. “We’re thinking we’re going to do this over a four-month period because even if they took all 122 books at once, we couldn’t scan them in a week. ... It’s not a simplistic project.”
It’s not an inexpensive one, either — Heck said the cost is estimated at $48,000, with the final number dependent on the complexity of the records. He said a state grant will cover roughly $37,000, and he has the remainder in a state-mandated preservation fund maintained by the office.
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