MONTPELIER — Restaurants can now seat customers at their bars and hotels are allowed to let out all of their rooms, Gov. Phil Scott announced Friday, further relaxing coronavirus restrictions that have been in place since March.
“Meaning food and drink service can take place at the counter, if the restaurant has one,” said Scott at a news conference. “But there needs to be a minimum of 6 feet between parties and a barrier between customers and staff behind the counter.”
Bar seating wasn’t allowed under state health rules and hotels and inns were limited to half capacity. Scott said with hotels, those businesses can rent all their rooms but must still comply with all other COVID-19 related rules and regulations especially ones around quarantine and travel.
“I know some may worry about whether this means we’ll see a flood of people from other states, but I want to remind everyone that our campgrounds, our arenas, cottages, which are now closing for the season, have been at 100% capacity all summer,” said Scott.
He added that the state will move its travel map and virus modeling presentations to Tuesdays.
“This will give folks a few more days to see the latest map and adjust their travel plans to comply,” he said.
Scott and other state officials have been holding regular news conferences on a weekly basis since the beginning of the pandemic. Lately, they’ve been held Tuesdays and Fridays.
On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, appeared remotely at the conference where he praised Vermont’s COVID-19 suppression efforts while urging the state to not become complacent. Scott reiterated that point while saying Vermont can expect to see more visitors during the imminent fall foliage season.
“As Dr. Fauci said, we’re starting from a really good place, and if we all do our part, Vermonters and visitors, we can continue to safely open up the economy, and put people back to work in order to provide for their families and prevent our local small business from closing their doors for good.”
He acknowledged that the changes he’d just announced would not take away the economic pain felt by the hospitality industry.
He plans to work with the Legislature on helping those financially impacted by the COVID-19 situation.
Amy Spear, vice president of tourism at Vermont Chamber of Commerce, told the Herald Friday that a proposal in the Vermont Senate contemplates allocated $76.7 million from the federal CARES Act to economic relief programs and that the Chamber will advocating for a portion of that to be directed at the hospitality industry.
“Today’s announcement was a testament to the fact the hospitality industry has been working diligently for the health and safety of Vermonters and leisure travelers, but it’s certainly been at great expense to the industry,” said Spear.
As Vermont’s K-12 schools settle into the school year, new applications of video technology in the classroom have districts navigating uncharted waters around issues of privacy.
Across the state, many schools are using synchronous, hybrid learning models whereby a group of students may be simultaneously learning in-person and remotely.
To bridge this virtual divide, teachers are putting cameras in classrooms to deliver lessons to all students. Also, teachers are being instructed by administrators to record these lessons so students with connectivity or scheduling issues can access them later.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects student data and educational records, including governing how certain types of photographs and videos might be used.
But in Vermont’s haste to adopt new remote and hybrid learning models, how effectively is student privacy being protected?
At Rutland City Public Schools, Pam Reed, director of equity and inclusion, said the district has been proactive.
In a letter to families dated Sept. 14, RCPS administrators acknowledged that parents and caregivers of remote-learning students may be privy to classroom instruction and reminded them of the need to respect student privacy.
“All of the students in our schools deserve and should expect that the adults who are supporting their classmates will not discuss or disclose any confidential information regarding students,” the letter reads, in part. “We ask that you respect the confidentiality of the other students as you would want the other adults to do so for your own child.”
RCPS opened this fall to in-person instruction five days a week in grades K-9. Grades 10-12 are on an alternating hybrid schedule. All students have the option to go fully remote.
“At this point, we have not had issues with confidentiality,” Reed said Tuesday.
The district is using the digital platforms Google Meet, Google Classroom and SeeSaw depending on grade level and context.
Reed said remote students are not required to have their cameras on while in a remote setting with other students.
“This allows students to participate while eliminating the class/teacher from being a virtual guest in their home,” Reed said.
At Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, Superintendent Jeanne Collins said the supervisory union has informed families that classes are being streamed and recorded.
“We are being as transparent as we can be that we’re recording, and we’re recording for the reasons of supporting the education of kids,” she said, explaining that recording a class is for the purposes of the school only. “It’s not to be released.”
RNESU opened this fall to in-person learning five days a week for grades K-2 and remote learning for grades 3-12. All students have the option to go fully remote.
The supervisory union uses Google Meet as its video chat platform. Recordings are housed on the teachers’ Google Drive accounts.
Collins said grades K-2 currently have cameras in the classroom and are livestreaming five days a week.
“Each class probably has two or three kids who are learning from home so that teacher is on camera while teaching,” she said.
Collins acknowledged that, while cameras in classrooms are trained on teacher, they may pick up students who enter the frame as well as their verbal responses.
She said that if there are any concerns, a student may be intentionally positioned outside the camera’s field of view or, if it’s preferable, the student may transition to remote learning.
Like RCPS, RNESU remote students are given the option to keep their camera off when in a class setting.
“We actually have told teachers not to mandate cameras being turned on, not to grade based on whether or not you see the child, but whether or not they’re engaging because there could be some sensitivities in the home where they don’t want it turned on,” Collins said.
In Washington County, Bryan Olkowski, superintendent of the Washington Central Unified Union School District, said the SU’s leadership team experimented with livestreaming over the summer, but decided it was against making it part of the its remote-learning plans.
WCUUSD opened for in-person learning in grades K-8. Grades 9-12 will be on a hybrid schedule. There is also a fully remote option for all students.
“We thought it was very hard to replicate the same educational experience simultaneously,” he said, citing issues of background noise and difficulty following what was happening in the classroom.
Conversely, Olkowski said the team felt it would be difficult for teachers to hear and respond to remote students while simultaneously working with in-person students.
Olkowski granted that livestreaming might work in some districts; it just was deemed to be a good fit for his.
“We thought that it would be a big ask to try to figure out all the technology pieces and if it was even feasible to make it work,” he said.
Pietro Lynn, an attorney at Lynn, Lynn, Blackman & Manitsky in Burlington, likens the current situation with parents and caregivers watching remotely to having volunteers in a classroom who may observe instruction during the course of a day.
“The fact of instruction does not trigger FERPA,” he said. “If there was a conversation about a specific student and the student’s academic experience, that likely would be a FRPA violation.”
Lynn’s firm specializes in education law and represents a number of school districts across Vermont.
“The challenge for teachers when engaging in remote learning is to make sure that they instruct, they respond appropriately to student questions that may arise during the course of the class … but they ought not talk about any specific student’s academic achievement.”
But while student concerns are being addressed, how protected are the teachers in front of the camera?
Collins said she has heard concerns from some teachers about parents of remote students who may observe a class and take issue with something a teacher says or does.
“That type of public discussion on Facebook happens anyway,” she said, explaining that having a recording can actually protect teachers by demonstrating a particular action was appropriate.
Lynn said protections for teachers would be the same whether it’s remote or in-person learning.
“Teachers have an ability to administer discipline, to go to the administration for support if parents are interfering with their ability to effectively teach,” he said. “That doesn’t change just because students are no longer in the classroom.”
One related issue Lynn said his firm has been advising school districts on is how to address inappropriate images, signs or pictures that might appear in the background of a remote student’s screen.
“Do we treat it like it’s their bedroom or do we treat it — if it’s within the video image — like a classroom?” he asked. “I think the answer is that you treat it like a classroom, and so those images or messages need to be removed from the cameras view.”
Lynn emphasized that it would not be appropriate to censor a student in their own home when they are engaging in speech approved by their parents, but argued that the situation changes when they are logged in to a virtual classroom.
“When they are part of the class, whether it’s remotely or in school, you treat students the way you would any other student at any other time.”
The Rutland Housing Authority is working to get permits for two projects that will bring about 20 units of transitional and affordable housing to the Rutland area. But since it’s using federal CARES Act funding, the timeline is tight.
Kevin Loso, executive director of the Rutland Housing Authority, said Thursday that one project will be at 101 Woodstock Ave. in Rutland Town, while the other will be at 15, 17 and 19 Pine St. in the city.
The Woodstock Transitional Housing project will be aimed at providing housing for those currently in hotel rooms paid for by the state. The Pine Street Apartments will be longer-term affordable housing, accepting people from hotel rooms or the Woodstock project itself, said Loso.
Together these will cost about $4.2 million, said Loso. The funds were awarded by the Vermont Housing Conservation Board, which was distributing $32 million from the CARES Act.
“The grant we received through the Vermont Housing Conservation Board requires us to have the properties completed no later than Dec. 20,” said Loso. “It’s going to be a mad dash to the finish line. Fortunately, we’re working with two solid contractors to get that work completed.”
Naylor and Breen is working on the Woodstock property, while Giancola Construction Corp. is doing Pine Street, said Loso.
Loso said there are 150 individuals and families in Rutland County currently living in hotels, their stays paid for by the state. He said it’s expensive for Vermont to do this, and the living situation isn’t good for families.
The idea behind the projects is to get people into a stable housing situation and help them eventually support themselves, he said.
He said Rutland Housing Authority, Housing Initiatives Inc., United Way, Homeless Prevention Center, Rutland Mental Health, Rutland Regional Medical Center and BROC Community Action are lending support to these projects, providing services for the people living in them.
The Woodstock Avenue project requires a minor Act 250 permit, something Loso said his group didn’t think it would need at first. Earlier this month, he met with the Rutland Town Select Board about the municipal impact portion of the Act 250 process. Selectmen had concerns with a utility pole interfering with wheelchair use of the sidewalk and the potential for the site to draw law enforcement.
Loso said Thursday the sidewalk issue has been resolved. The housing authority will pay to have it fixed as part of the project.
“We are confident we’re going to get there,” said Loso. “We do have to resolve the issue of police coverage and the town’s, at least perceived, ability not to be able to provide services.”
Rutland Town Police Chief Ed Dumas said Friday that the Select Board police committee met with Loso that day and will obtain more information about what to expect. Based on what he’s heard, he said he thinks a workable arrangement can be reached.
Also on Friday, Congressman Peter Welch, D-Vt., announced that he introduced a bill to extend the deadline state and smaller governments have for using CARES Act funds, saying the current deadlines don’t allow for long-term recovery projects to get started. The bill proposes extending the deadline to Sept. 20, 2021.
“Our state and local communities need help to get through this unprecedented and challenging time,” stated Welch in a release. “But implementing the changes needed to cope with the disruptions to our lives, work and communities caused by the coronavirus pandemic will take time. From implementing broadband projects to continuing safe school re-openings, this bill will give Vermont the flexibility it needs to use the funds passed by Congress in the CARES Act.”
He added that the deadline extension would be good, but not a substitute for another CARES Act-like aid bill such as the Heroes Act passed in the House.
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