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State news briefing
Officials: Pandemic taking toll on residents' mental health

MONTPELIER — State officials say they understand the toll the novel coronavirus pandemic is taking on residents’ mental health and “it’s OK to not feel OK right now.”

The state reported 73 new cases of the virus Friday and two additional deaths, bringing the death toll to 77 since the pandemic hit the state in March.

At his Friday news conference, Gov. Phil Scott said the pandemic is one of the most stressful events residents have had to deal with in his lifetime.

“And I see it each and every day. And it’s much different than other crises we’ve experienced as a state. This isn’t a 24-hour storm. It’s been so prolonged, and we don’t know when it will end,” Scott said.

The governor said the virus has forced people to stay away from those they rely on during challenging times. He said residents aren’t alone in their anxiety over losing their job or not being able to get together with others.

“One thing we can all do is reach out to our loved ones. On the phone or video or even just an email or a text. It’s more important than ever to make that extra effort to stay connected. Because even if you’re not feeling some of these things, the person on the other end might be and checking in can go a long way,” the governor said.

The governor said there are resources available for those who are struggling, and there is no shame in seeking help. He said those who don’t have a primary-care physician or know who their local provider is can call 211 to be referred to services.

“This is an incredibly uncertain time and it’s OK to admit that it’s taking a toll on you. It’d be strange if it wasn’t. But please know help is there if you need it,” the governor said.

Sarah Squirrell, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, said residents’ routines have changed because of the virus. Squirrell said they are juggling child care and work, stressed about their current situation and worried about the future. And, she said, some have lost loved ones.

“We’re all working hard and doing our best to continue to rise and meet the challenges and to keep each other safe. As Vermonters, we take pride in our strength and resilience, but the uncertainty and ambiguity we are all facing makes it harder. … None of us is immune from the impacts of COVID on our overall wellness and well-being. We are all struggling in one way or another,” she said.

The commissioner said her message to residents is they are not alone.

“It’s OK to not feel OK right now. There are many valid reasons to be overwhelmed, anxious and exhausted. And if these feelings are beginning to impact you seeking help can be very supportive,” she said.

Squirrell said, unfortunately, there is still a stigma around mental health and some that would benefit from services and support don’t access it out of fear of judgment and labeling. She said those barriers need to be broken down and people need to talk about their mental health.

The commissioner said her department and Vermont Care Partners have created COVID Support VT which can be found at covidsupportvt.org or by calling 211. There she said residents can find confidential, free support and connections to local resources.



Members of the Rutland Garden Club are pictured hanging holiday decor outside Chaffee Art Center in Rutland City.

Sprucing Up for the Season

Mill River officials: Survey mistakenly sent to students

NORTH CLARENDON — School officials at Mill River Union High School are apologizing for an email that was inadvertently sent to students containing a link to a third-party survey.

At the regular meeting of the Mill River Unified Union School District School Board Wednesday evening, Superintendent David Younce explained that an email containing a survey from the LGBTQ+ youth advocacy group Outright Vermont accidentally was sent to student in grades 7-12.

A request to send the survey to students was made by the high school’s Gay Straight Alliance club. According to Younce, the administration denied that request, but not before a previously scheduled email containing the link was sent to students’ school-issued email accounts earlier this week.

“This was inadvertent and occurred due to an administrative oversight,” Younce said. “No student information was shared in any way with outside parties.”

He explained that MRUHS Principal Tyler Weideman issued an apology to students and parents, and requested students ignore the survey.

“Emails sent from the administration to students have often been sent through a designee. From this point onward … any emails sent directly to students will only come from the principal directly,” Younce said.

Younce said that school personnel involved “have been addressed in accordance with our normal investigative and disciplinary protocols,” and told the board he ultimately accepts responsibility for the situation.

“I am the superintendent and the folks who were engaged with this work were under my supervision so I would encourage you to hold me accountable for that concern if it is a concern that reaches that level with you.”

Participation in the survey was optional, but it did offer a $30 gift card to anyone who completed it. Younce called the monetary incentive “extremely inappropriate.”

Also, the survey asked for an email address, mailing address and phone number, but students would have had to choose to take the survey before supplying such information.

The district has worked with Outright Vermont previously. In October, the organization held a professional development workshop on gender and sexuality with district staff members.

In an email to staff following the workshop, Curriculum Director Andrew Jones described it as “an introduction to the topic of gender and sexuality so as to build our collective understanding of the topic and ultimately to better support our students and their families.”

As a result of this week’s situation, Younce informed the board he did not plan to work with Outright Vermont in the future.

“With this particular outside organization, we do not have any intention to maintain connections or relationships with this organization moving forward,” Younce said.

Speaking to the Herald on Thursday, Younce said while he did not find the survey questions to be “egregious or concerning in any way, shape or form,” he disliked how it was presented with the offer of a gift card.

“I just don’t think that’s the appropriate way, with kids, to go about a survey,” he said.

Questions on the survey focus largely on mental health, coping with stress and access to basic needs such as food, shelter and health care.

Some specific questions include: “In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your life?”, “What are 3 feelings you’ve been experiencing more/a lot lately?” and “What are some words you use to describe yourself?”

Younce maintained his concern was about protecting student privacy.

“In general terms, I am not interested in sending out third-party surveys to students whatsoever,” he said. “I’m not interested in making our students available for other organizations to utilize any of their thoughts or opinions.”

Younce said the only survey students participate in is the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is conducted statewide biannually.

At Wednesday’s board meeting, the situation drew criticism from several community members, though those concerns seemed to be focused more on the nature of the organization itself.

Founded in 1989, Outright Vermont works to support LGBTQ+ youth throughout the state.

According to Executive Director Dana Kaplan, the nonprofit works closely with schools as well as the Agency of Education.

“We have always had good working relationships with schools across Vermont. Oftentimes, school administrators are some of our most important allies in terms of helping to connect us to youth who may be in need of support,” he said Thursday.

Kaplan said this particular survey, which he described as a needs assessment, is being used to better understand the needs of LGBTQ+ youth during the coronavirus pandemic. A similar assessment was sent out in May.

“It was a way for us to hear directly from youth how their lives were being impacted, if they were receiving the support that they needed,” he said. “We know that there’s a disproportionate impact on LGBTQ+ youth, who are already isolated, without a pandemic.”

The data collected, Kaplan said, is part of a larger effort to better understand where LGBTQ+ youth in Vermont are having their needs met and where gaps — based on a lack of structural or systemic support — exist.

In a follow-up email, Kaplan noted MRUHS administrators’ instructions for students to “ignore” the survey and the decision to sever ties with his organization, writing that he was “gravely concerned with the messages that send youth in dire need of connection.”

“The bottom line is that if sending out a survey from a third-party broke protocol, a simple apology and moving on is all that’s needed. But because we are Outright (Vermont), this whole situation is being met with a different level of community backlash,” Kaplan wrote.

“Making any connection or implication that this survey is anything other than a simple outreach effort to youth who are fully IN CHOICE about filling it out is worrisome and dangerous given the level of risk these young folks are already navigating,” he stated.

According to data from the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, high school youth in Rutland County were more likely than their peers around the rest of the state to have made a suicide plan (15% vs. 13% statewide), felt sad or hopeless (35% vs. 31%) and self-harmed (21% vs. 19%) in the past year.

Statewide, a comparison of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender high school youth to their heterosexual/cisgender counterparts reveals they were even more likely to have made a suicide plan (36% vs. 11% statewide), felt sad or hopeless (63% vs. 31%) and self-harmed (55% vs. 15%).

LGBT high schoolers were also nearly twice as likely to have been bullied than heterosexual/cisgender youth, and reported experiencing sexual and dating violence at a significantly higher rate.

In Rutland County, 14% of high schoolers identify as LGBT,” on par with the state average, according to YRBS.

On Friday, Younce stated that his decision to part ways with Outright Vermont should not be interpreted as a lack of support for LGBTQ+ individuals within the Mill River community.

“The internal decision that we don’t need to continue any sort of formal relationship with the organization, that doesn’t mean that we don’t seek to support our students who need our support in every way that we possibly can,” he said.



Secret Santa undeterred by pandemic

Rutland’s Secret Santa says COVID-19 won’t keep him from spreading Christmas cheer, but if you want a visit from him, you better be good and wear a mask, for goodness sake.

For more than a decade, the start of the Christmas season in Rutland has been unofficially marked by the activities of an anonymous benefactor who spends December sticking envelopes of cash in the hands of unsuspecting people as they go about their business downtown and then vanishes before anyone gets a good look at him.

Each year, right after Thanksgiving, the Secret Santa deposits a note announcing the commencement of his activities at the Rutland Herald’s office. The deliveries have been made, as near as the Herald can tell, in person (with the exception of at least one year he opted to use the mail), but no one on the staff has managed to catch sight of him in action. This year, with the Herald’s offices on Grove Street closed to the public during the pandemic, Secret Santa resorted to email.

“With the pestilence that is upon our collective genus, Christmas lights appearing aplenty before Thanksgiving, and families finding solace in digital communication rather than the deep embrace of loved ones, I write to the Herald to let you know I was compelled to begin my rounds early this year,” he wrote. “These gifts continue to be the highlight of my year, and, I hope, a source of goodwill and love for our community.”

Secret Santa said he started his rounds two days before Thanksgiving.

“Not that my rounds will make a sizable difference in the world, but it’s enough that they will bolster my own sanity and offer a tiny glimmer of hope to the relative handful who receive my gifts,” he wrote. “Just the anticipation of lifting some miniscule bit of gloom would be enough, given the illness and death that is seemingly everywhere this year. My rounds are a tonic, at least for me, in these troubled times.”

Like with everything else, Secret Santa said he has had to make some adjustments to his routine.

“The pandemic has, indeed, complicated my rounds,” he wrote. “It engenders greater caution, has prompted me to make my visits as early in the day as possible to avoid crowds, and, of course, to make deliveries only to people who are observing mask protocols.”

In addition to his hand-delivered gifts, Santa said he has once again chosen three people in the community to whom to mail $100 — an expansion of his activities he added in 2017.

“Each was chosen simply because their own spirit of giving has been witnessed in the past,” he wrote. “I don’t harbor the belief that any of these outlays will have an incredible financial impact for the recipients, but hope the gesture simply lets them know they are appreciated.”

In an interview in 2009, granted in exchange for a strict promise of anonymity, Secret Santa said he gives out as much as $2,500 a year.

“May you and yours find the strength and love to get through these challenging times,” he wrote.



Rail topper


Mia Politano, of Otter Valley Union High School, and Billy Latkin, of Rutland High School, have been named Rutland Herald Golfers of the Year. B1

Growlers amid a sampling of Beki Auclair’s fermented veggie and drink line, as well as kombucha, fermented veggies, and brines — all part of Vermont Fermentation Adventures.

Vt. ARTS rail reefer

Handel returns

The “Messiah” this season, a Christmas tradition at Grace Congregational Church, will be presented online under the direction of Alastair Stout, minister of music. D1