MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott has announced restaurants can open for outdoor seating, some medical procedures can resume and businesses such as salons and barbershops, can start back up May 29 in response to the state’s positive handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The governor said depending on data tracking the virus that causes COVID-19, he’s looking to increase the number of people allowed to group up from 10 to 25 starting June 1. He also announced churches can open at 25% capacity.
It wasn’t all good news because the governor announced that fairs and festivals have been canceled for the summer, including the Vermont State Fair in Rutland and the Champlain Valley Fair — two very popular summertime events. Events that take place in the fall may be able to go forward, but Scott said it would depend on where things stand in the coming months.
The numbers being reported from the Department of Health continue to be encouraging. The state has ramped up its testing ability and state officials expected that to mean an increase in positive tests. But the department reported only two new cases of the virus Friday, increasing the total confirmed cases in the state from 950 to 952. There also has not been another death from the virus. That total remains 54.
Scott said he’s taking a conservative approach to reopening the economy because of what’s going on regionally. New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts continue to be in worse shape than Vermont in combating the virus.
“Because we’re not on an island, and some of our neighbors still have a significant number of new and active cases,” he said.
The governor said businesses that can start back up will need to follow health and safety requirements from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
Restaurants must have their tables spaced at least 10 feet apart and no more than 50 people can be seated. They are required to use disposable menus and a total of 10 people from only two households are allowed to sit at the same table. Salons and barbershops are only allowed to operate at 25% capacity, or one customer per 200 square feet, or 10 total customers and staff members combined, whichever is greater. Those businesses can only take appointments, so no more walk-ins.
Restaurants, bars, salons and barbershops, as well as lodging businesses, are required to keep a log of those they have served for 30 days in an effort to help contact tracing if needed.
Gyms and spas aren’t allowed to open yet, but Scott said he’s looking to announce a time frame for them in a week.
Scott said he’s tried not to get too far ahead of the data when making decisions, but “the reality is, we’re still far from being back to normal.” He said the Vermont Fairs and Field Days Association has asked him for guidance on whether this summer’s events should proceed. The governor said the state’s not ready for “large, unstructured events with hundreds, if not thousands, of people coming into one area without control and the ability to physically separate.”
Scott said all traditional fairs and festivals have been canceled for the season. He said this order does not close fairgrounds or prohibit operations that may meet the health and safety requirements put forth in the coming months.
Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the state Department of Health, said some medical procedures can move forward. They include inpatient surgeries and procedures; outpatient services, including clinic visits, diagnostic imaging and limited outpatient surgeries and procedures; and elective dental services.
Levine said health care providers will have to screen patients, staff and visitors for symptoms of the virus. They will also need to have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment and procedures in place to test staff, as well as patients who will be having surgery.
While restrictions are still in place to slow the spread of the COVID-19, high schools in Rutland County are finding ways to recognize the Class of 2020 as they graduate.
About 190 seniors will graduate from Rutland High School, according to Principal Bill Olsen.
“We want to honor the accomplishments of the graduates while following Department of Health and Agency of Education expectations for keeping everyone healthy and safe,” he said.
Olsen said faculty and staff are creating a “virtual”: graduation with the help of a videographer. All of the elements of the graduation, such as speeches, will be recorded in advance of the June 11 graduation. A video with messages from individual teachers is also planned for the event.
“We are also asking students to send us a picture of themselves in their cap and gown, perhaps with family members or friends, and those will be incorporated into a slideshow in the film,” Olsen said.
The high school is providing lawn signs to all the graduates. Business owner Mark Foley is providing space for signs downtown.
The graduation is expected to stream “live” on June 11 at 6 p.m.
Olsen said there has also been discussion of inviting Class of 2020 graduates back for the 2021 graduation so they can be honored then.
West Rutland will hold a “drive-in” ceremony at 7 p.m. on June 5, complete with music and a guest speaker. Each family will be allowed three cars.
“We can only have 10 people out of the cars,” Principal Jay Slenker said.
PEG-TV has been invited and the event, followed by a parade through town, will be streamed on Facebook Live.
“We’re still working out the details,” Slenker said.
Slenker said the class of 2020’s 17-student size makes logistics easier.
Mount St. Joseph Academy is producing a movie for its graduation.
“We’re putting together a video that, when all is said and done, will look just like a live graduation,” Principal Mike Alexander said. “People are doing these drop-off graduations. We just didn’t like it.”
Alexander said students and staff are following all health and safety protocols as they assemble the clips that will go into the film.
“If you take our program for graduation — think of that as the overall storyboard for the video itself,” he said. “You’ve got ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’ the entrance of the graduates ... the benediction ... the national anthem sung by one of our graduates. ... All this is being filmed separately.”
Graduates will still get to cross the stage, Alexander said, claim their diplomas, be congratulated by a small group of relatives, and turn their tassels.
The completed film will air of PEG-TV when the graduation originally was scheduled — 6:30 p.m. June 5 —as well as on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
Fair Haven Union High School’s graduation ceremony will be at 4 p.m. June 12. It’s also adopted a drive-up method of sending off its seniors.
Principal Jason Rasco said seniors voted on several available options and chose this one.
Graduates will come to the school in vehicles. One vehicle is allowed per graduate, said Rasco. Once they park in designated spots, they’ll be able to view a prerecorded set of speeches on a mobile device. After that, their names will be called one-by-one. When a graduate’s name is called, they can get out of their vehicle while wearing their cap, gown and a face mask, and go up to a stage to receive their diploma in a bag. Rasco said between graduates and volunteers there won’t be more than 10 people outside a vehicle at any given time. As graduates drive away, they’ll pass their teachers all parked in their vehicles honking horns.
“It’ll be a nice touch where we can meet the kids, do at least a piece that is personal and in-person to the best of our ability while maintaining safety,” said Rasco.
Mill River Union High School’s graduation will be completely online, said Principal Tyler Weideman.
The normal musical numbers and speeches will be prerecorded and spliced into one video, said Weideman. Graduating seniors are also recording themselves in their caps and gowns flipping their tassels. These will be edited into the graduation video and shown when a graduate’s name is mentioned.
The video will be posted to the school’s social media pages on June 10 and aired on PEG-TV. Weideman said it will be uploaded between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., around the time the traditional ceremony would take place.
“For a drive-up thing, the parameters the governor put on that would be far too restrictive, and even before he put those parameters on it we didn’t think it was the best idea to have people congregating in that form,” said Weideman. “It’s not what we wanted to do, but with the parameters we have, it’s the safest thing for our community. I’m the first person who would want to do a traditional ceremony if we could.”
Otter Valley Union High School’s graduation will involve some mixture of online and drive-up, said Jeanne Collins, superintendent of Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, on Thursday. The details are being worked out by students and the administration. Graduation is set to begin at 9:30 a.m. June 13.
Stafford Technical Center students graduate as members of the senior class of their sending high schools but Melissa Connor, director of Stafford, said they host an awards night every year.
This year’s event will be recorded in advance. It will go live June 5, the date that was scheduled for the awards event. Students will get a link to the video and Connor said Stafford staff will post it to the school’s social media sites and its website.
The video will have an address from the keynote speaker, the announcement of awards and recognition of all the about 80 seniors from the Class of 2020.
Joe DeBonis, principal at Poultney High School, said this year’s graduation, scheduled for June 12, will be a drive-in event. Participants will start at the high school and parade down Main Street through town to the elementary school.
Each of the almost 30 graduates will be allowed three vehicles per family.
At the ceremony, there will be a stage from which the valedictorian and salutatorian will give speeches and awards will be announced. The graduates will be called up one at a time to pick up their diplomas and any awards they’ve received, DeBonis said.
A Poultney graduate has been hired to take photos of the students as they graduate, so family members can maintain their distance but still get an individual graduation photo.
“Best of both worlds is what we can do right now. Keep everybody safe but also have the kids get up and walk across the stage and receive a diploma. I’ll announce their names, put the diploma on the table, step back and the kids can walk up and grab their diploma,” DeBonis said.
For the 17 graduates at Proctor High School, graduation is set for 10 a.m. June 6.
Phyllis Currao, director of school counseling for the high school, said, “We have a pretty good plan in place.”
On Wednesday, school staff made an event of students picking up their caps and gowns with lunch, music and balloons. For safety reasons, students were admitted for 15 minutes and school staff wore masks and sanitized the tables where the caps and gowns were located.
Like other small high schools, Proctor will have a drive-in graduation. Each student will be allowed three cars at the event. Currao pointed out the graduating class is small enough, at 16 participants, to have three vehicles each.
One student is graduating from an alternate program and won’t be part of the June 6 graduation.
The vehicles will parade through downtown to the high school where there will be a stage near the baseball field. Graduates will be called from their vehicle to the stage to receive a diploma.
Christopher Sell, the principal, will be on the stage but won’t hand the diplomas to students as a further safety measure.
There will be no guest speaker at the event, but the speaker is being asked to record a video that will be part of the livestream of the graduation. The valedictorian and salutatorian will each give a speech. Currao said school officials want to keep the ceremony short in case of inclement weather or a hot day because the attendees will be in their vehicles the whole time.
A song, selected by the student, will be playing as each student approaches the stage. A photographer will get a photo of each graduate as they pick up their diploma.
Rutland Regional Medical Center has made a smooth transition back to performing some procedures and tests, according to the hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. Melbourne Boynton.
In March, Gov. Phil Scott, after ordering hospitals in Vermont to delay elective procedures because of a concern the state might need the capacity to handle an expected surge of patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Earlier this month, the governor gave hospitals permission to start resuming some of those procedures and tests although some restrictions remain.
Boynton said things had been going “really well” since the hospital resumed some of its services.
“The price of admission is safety, right? So everything is done, number one, all the time, with an eye toward safety,” he said.
Since the state revised its restrictions, Rutland Regional is using about 70% of its surgical volume and about 70% of its screening volume, Boynton estimated. He said colonoscopies and mammograms were an example of the kind of screening RRMC is doing again.
“We are encountering less resistance than we thought we might and I think that’s because of the safety procedures that we put into place. Patients, when they come, it’s amazing. I thought they would view some of these procedures as annoying, but they’re actually quite pleased that they’re in place and extremely gratified with the care,” he said.
Boynton said the staff at the hospital expect the next step will be overnight procedures, if allowed by the state, but he said he doesn’t expect that to happen until mid-June.
With the hospital being idle on elective procedures and tests, Boynton used a quote attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower, to describe how RRMC made a smooth transition: “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
Boynton added the change has “not been a battle by any stretch” but said the plans allowed the hospital to give patients what staff believes is the best and safest experience.
Same patients have been reluctant to reschedule their procedures over lingering concerns about the possibility of being infected with COVID. Boynton said medical care providers understood those concerns were “very legitimate” but explained to patients that staff members at the hospital were taking extensive precautions.
“We’ve encountered that. We’ve very respectful of it. Most people, when they see the safety measures in place, all the screening that’s done, feel very comfortable coming in,” he said.
There are differences from what a hospital visit was like before the pandemic. Patients who need surgery are required to be tested for COVID.
“We’ve had a bit of challenging logistics about helping people get that done in an expedient manner,” Boynton said.
After the test, the patients are asked to self-isolate from the time they test negative for COVID until they go to the hospital for their surgical procedure.
What will be different for patients is a routine screening, during which those coming to the hospital will be asked about specific symptoms. The patient will be given some hand sanitizer and a face mask to prevent droplet transmission.
Rutland Regional care providers have not seen any patient-to-patient transmission of COVID which Boynton attributes to the safety measures.
Visitors are still not permitted but anyone coming for medical care is permitted to have an “essential companion” to help the patient get there and home, help the patient get post-care prescriptions and help to collect the post-care instructions the patient needs to follow after leaving the hospital.
Boynton praised the staff at the hospital for being able to go from planning for the possibility of a worst case scenario involving a highly-contagious virus to resuming the kind of work they hadn’t done for about two months.
“We have seen people rally together, re-educate themselves, repurpose their efforts in order to be ready for a COVID-19 surge. We’ve been fortunate enough to not have the surge ... but as we’ve not encountered the surge and people are getting back to more routine life, people (who work for the hospital) are smiling,” he said.
Boynton said he believes the staff has the advantage of providing health care which he called a “wonderful purpose.”
Boynton said one thing local care providers wanted the public to know was that they can come to the emergency department immediately if they are experiencing any kind of symptoms such as chest pains, shortness of breath or high fever. Residents are urged not to wait to come to the hospital if they’re experiencing those kinds of health emergencies because hospital staff need to put extra measures in place to provide the safest care.
MONTPELIER — A year ago, 28 Vermont educators began learning to spot inequality in the education system. The problems they’ve come to see have been made even more apparent by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Initially the focus was working at the district level,” said Jamilah Vogel, a guidance counselor at St. Albans City School. “And then when the pandemic started to really shake things up and schools had to close, it became really evident that with schools closing, it was lifting the veil on the inequities not just within education but the inequities in our community.”
School were helping to alleviate some of these community inequities, but their closing made them far more apparent, she said.
Vogel is part of the Equity Practitioners Network, an initiative of the Vermont Principals’ Association.
Linda Wheatley, equity coordinator with the VPA, said the 28 now involved are the initiative’s first cohort. They are a mix of teachers, administrators, and others involved in education around the state who are learning to identify inequity in the schools and the communities they serve.
“The idea is that over time, if we were beginning a cohort every year, all school districts would be changing their language and approaches,” she said.
The initiative is trying to increase “equity literacy” in the Vermont school system, she said.
“With equity literacy what you’re looking for are deeply rooted historical biases in our curriculum, in our policies, in our culture, and in our thinking,” said Wheatley. “So it’s racism, it’s gender bias. The idea is to notice who is missing out and begin to talk to them about how to change systems.”
She said the network has written a letter to decision-makers in the realm of education with recommendations on how to address inequity. The recommendations are, essentially, that student well-being be made the focus of education during this time, that schools be recognized as important support structures, and that online learning, while good, is not a cure-all.
When schools closed because of the pandemic, Wheatley said there was a great deal of effort early on to address food, childcare, and other needs schools normally provided.
“Then, gradually, over the last few weeks as those systems have been set up and gotten a little more consistent and less frantic, the issues we’ve been noticing and that we drew attention to in our recommendation letter are becoming more clear and worth discussing, and some new concerns are coming up,” she said.
Some of the work the network members have been doing involves small-scale efforts to identify and address inequity.
“One of the things that happens is the rose-colored glasses come off and they start to see inequities in the system they work in everywhere, and so once they’ve identified some of those they’re able to pick a small project to take on,” said Mike McRaith, assistant director of the VPA, and formerly principal at Montpelier High School. “That might be adjusting language in a dress code, it might be something with bathrooms, it might be the types of authors that are represented in classroom libraries rather than just the school library.”
He said the work so far has been going well despite the usual challenges that come with new initiatives. The group has been meeting via Zoom, owing to the pandemic. McRaith said everyone has become quite skilled at video conferencing, and perhaps because of this attendance has been better than it otherwise would be.
Gov. Phil Scott announced on Friday all fairs, festivals and mass gatherings on fair grounds have been canceled through the rest of the year.
Scott and other members of his administration have been participating in press conferences three times a week to announce updates in the state’s effort to flatten the curve of the spread of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. The guidance for fairs was announced on Friday.
Robert Congdon, president of the Rutland County Agricultural Society, said members of the society were “of course, saddened.”
“We were really keeping a positive outlook. I was really hopeful that things would turn the corner and we would be able to proceed and have our events this year,” he said.
The fair was scheduled for Aug. 18-22. It would have been the 175th Vermont state fair.
“I think for me that’s the largest piece of the disappointment. We were really working and had a great line-up in place for the 175th. We’re doing our best now to take — and obviously this news is very fresh — but we will be working hard over the next several weeks to get the 175th plan for next year now and we’ll be able to have a great fair next year with a lot of the entertainment that we had lined up for this year. We look forward to working with all those folks to make sure that happens,” Congdon said.
According to Congdon, late spring and early summer events planned for the fairground have already been canceled.
“Truthfully, we are still hopeful that some of our smaller events that use our fairgrounds will still be able to go on within the guidelines,” he said
Mary Cohen, executive director of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce, said she wasn’t sure what economic impact the fair has on the area or what businesses rely on fair visitors, but said she was concerned it was an indication of how Vermont might struggle to bring back tourism.
The Vermont State Fair organization announced the decision on its Facebook page on Friday afternoon.
“Please stay tuned as we will be releasing announcements in the coming weeks regarding other events we had booked. We can confirm this means no July 4th Summer Smash (a demolition derby) and the fair scheduled for August is also canceled,” the post stated.
Congdon said he understood 2020 wouldn’t be the first year the fair had been canceled, but he wasn’t certain exactly what years it had happened before.
Congdon said he believes the fair skipped a year for the Spanish influenza epidemic, which took place in 1918, and one of the world wars.
The point, he added, was that a cancellation of the fair was not unprecedented but hadn’t happened for “years and years.”
Congdon said organizers weren’t shocked by the decision but were still somewhat surprised by the way it was shared with the public.
“Let me put it this way, we were unaware that the announcement or that a final decision was coming today,” he said.
On May 15, representatives of all the fairs in Vermont, along with Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services and Anson Tebbetts, secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, took part in a remote conference to discuss what might happen, according to Congdon. Those organizing fairs shared their opinions but Congdon said they weren’t told a decision had been made.
However, Congdon said he and his colleagues understood a decision or guidance might be announced this week.
“Unfortunately, as the governor made it clear today in his executive order, large gatherings this year are out of the question and because they’re out of the question, that obviously affects all the fairs in Vermont,” Congdon said.
Congdon said agricultural society are unhappy because they don’t like to disappoint the area residents who visit the fair as participants or spectators.
“We love our community and we put our event on for our community. Certainly, losing that event and losing the ability to do that for our community is a hard blow to all of us,” he said.
The cancellation of the event will also be an economic hardship for the fair organization, Congdon said.
“Certainly this is a blow to us. We can’t overlook that. I am working with our finance committee to weather the storm. I have a firm belief that we will weather the storm. We will come out the other side and be able to have events in the future. I have no doubt of that. We will pull it off,” he said.
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