Hospital officials say patients with COVID-19 are not as big a problem for them as staffers with the coronavirus.
Vermont set a new record with 101 people hospitalized for COVID at the beginning of the week. By Friday that number was still at 100, with 24 individuals in intensive care units. The state saw 2,295 new cases on Friday with a two-week total of 11,619.
The state’s death toll since the start of the pandemic is now 493.
“The volume of cases — a year ago I would have been saying ‘the sky was falling,’” said Dr. Rick Hildebrant, Rutland Regional Medical Center’s chief medical information officer and medical director of hospital medicine. “Now, this seems manageable because we’ve become accustomed to this. ... Space is not the problem.”
Staffing is the problem, Hildrebant said. So many medical professionals have contracted COVID, some hospitals in the state have declared a “crisis,” he said. RRMC has managed by adjusting isolation protocols for staff in light of newer Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance and by taking other steps, including having middle managers work clinical shifts.
“The federal government has deployed health care workers to Vermont hospitals to help with the staffing issues, and the state has contracted with a traveling nurse company to provide more nursing assistance,” Vermont Emergency Management Director Erica Bornemann wrote in an email. “We continue to work with the National Guard and other resources to assess how to support hospitals’ staffing needs.”
The toll continues to be taken in other sectors of the state, as well.
As the recent surge in cases continued, Castleton University announced this week it will begin its spring semester online when classes resume Tuesday.
“Our goal is to preserve the safety of our community while also minimizing disruptions to University operations and your campus experience,” university officials stated in a message to the school community on Thursday.
School representative James Lambert said delaying the start of in-person classes allowed the school to “build up to our full campus population density as we anticipate some students will now arrive at different times.”
While all traditional classroom courses will be remote, Lambert said some field experiences — such as teaching, internships and clinicals — will be in-person, if allowed by partner agencies. Daily operations on campus will continue to be in person, according to school officials. All university offices and services will be open, as will residence halls and the dining hall. In-person learning is slated to resume on Jan. 24.
Athletic events will continue to be held, however, spectators will not be admitted during the first week of the semester.
“Students can choose whether to return to campus as originally planned or delay a return closer to when classes transition to in-person,” Lambert wrote in a Thursday email.
Lambert added that Castleton plans to require the COVID-19 booster shots for students, faculty and staff, however, he said the school will need to evaluate how Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision could impact those plans.
On Thursday, the court blocked President Joe Biden’s vaccine and testing mandate for large businesses.
Elsewhere in the state, Northern Vermont University is requiring all students to have had a booster shot by Feb. 1 or within 14 days of when they become eligible for one.
Colleges around the state each seem to have their own protocols and guidelines for students’ return to classes from the holiday break.
Health professionals continue to urge those who have not yet been vaccinated or boosted to do so.
“The determination of how sick you are is absolutely your vaccination status,” Hildebrant said.
For people who were initially vaccinated and then got a booster shot, Hildebrant said, COVID tends to be like a cold.
“They’re getting a runny nose and a sore throat,” he said. “People who are vaccinated and not boosted, they’re getting sicker. Those who have had nothing, they’re the ones in our intensive care unit.”
Staff writer Jim Sabataso contributed to this report.
On Tuesday, the Rutland City Board of School Commissioners voted 6-5 Tuesday to reinstate the Raiders name and arrowhead logo — the culmination of a nearly two-year contentious debate that has divided the School Board and the Rutland community.
But as the dust settles, those who advocated for retiring the Raider name and arrowhead logo remain committed to their cause.
Commissioner Alison Notte presided as board chair when it first retired the name and logo in late 2020 and adopted “Ravens” as the new team name and mascot in early 2021.
Speaking Thursday, Notte raised concerns about the way the vote to reinstate the Raiders proceeded after so much was made about the procedural process by which it was retired.
She argued that motion Tuesday to bring back the Raiders was improper, explaining that the board technically needed to vote to rescind the prior motions to retire it and adopt the Ravens, which she said required a two-thirds majority to pass if not warned ahead of the meeting.
Last summer, current Board Chair Hurley Cavacas ordered an investigation into that process, alleging that the board under Notte had violated Robert’s Rules of Order in removing Raiders and adopting Ravens.
That investigation, conducted by an independent legal counsel, reported those actions had been carried out properly and were binding.
Notte said she hoped a similar investigation would be conducted following Tuesday’s vote for the sake of consistency.
Notte stated that an inability to get past the initial vote and properly adopt the new mascot made it difficult for the student body and community to achieve any momentum with accepting the change.
“Instead, it just stayed in this perpetual struggle,” she said.
Looking back, Notte said she thought the board could have done more community education around the importance of transitioning to a new mascot and how the Raider name and arrowhead impacted students of marginalized populations.
When asked if that educational campaign should have included more direct involvement from local Indigenous communities, Notte said while it may have been useful, she wondered why the onus was always on the minority population to prove its value.
Notte ultimately expressed concern that the return to Raiders is sending the board in the direction of “not representing all students and supporting diversity amongst our student population and diversity of needs of our district.”
Rutland High School senior Jenna Montgomery, who is a member of the change the mascot group, said she was “disappointed but not surprised” by the board’s reversal.
“We know that two of the commissioners ran solely on the platform of changing back the mascot and didn’t really have a whole lot of say about anything else. So it’s not exactly surprising that they prioritized that over other pressing matters because that’s really all they campaigned on,” she said.
Montgomery was referring to Commissioners Tricia O’Connor and Stephanie Stoodley who were elected as part of a pro-Raider slate last March.
Among students, she said there was a mix of relief that the debate was over and frustration that the mascot vote was reversed.
During the past year, Stoodley has maintained that a majority of RHS students supported Raiders, but Montgomery contended that is not accurate.
Montgomery acknowledged the Raiders name was popular among RHS athletes, however, she noted that population did not represent the whole school community.
“I think that that is the very loud group that Mrs. Stoodley is referring to, but I don’t think that the overwhelming majority of students oppose the name change,” she said.
“Quite frankly, I don’t care if they support it or don’t support it,” she said, adding that she agreed with Commissioner Dena Goldberg’s argument that “majority voting doesn’t necessarily address minority issues.”
Isabella LaFemina, senior class representative to the School Board, also acknowledged the student body remains divided on the issue — though she noted that many students are simply fed up with the board’s inconsistency.
“One minute we’re Ravens, one minute we’re Raiders. I think there’s a lot of kids who are like, ‘I didn’t care in the first place,’ and they just want this to be over with,” she said.
During Tuesday’s meeting, LaFemina lamented that the mascot issue was continuing to dominate board meetings.
“This board cannot get anything done under these circumstances,” she said. “I want to be able to be a part of a school climate that does not include a racist mascot, or a school board of adults clinging to said mascot.”
Stoodley objected to LaFemina’s comments, stating, “You’re the student rep, and I believe that you should represent the entire student body and not an individual or a segregated group.”
Later in the meeting, LaFemina spoke up again, challenging Stoodley’s assertion that the majority of RHS students were in favor of Raiders, calling it a “biased view.”
Speaking Wednesday, LaFemina defended her comments, stating, “I was elected as the student rep by my senior class. And I think that they would want me to speak up,” she said.
While LaFemina was not pleased with Tuesday’s result, she was also critical of commissioners’ behavior in general over the past year.
She expressed disappointment during the past month’s chaotic board meeting that ended prematurely following a series of heated exchanges between commissioners, including a particularly tense moment where Notte forcefully shouted down Cavacas.
“I’m disappointed in (Commissioner) Notte because I look up to her and what she’s fighting for. I just think there was a lot going on in front of us and behind the scenes that she was frustrated by,” she said.
However, LaFemina said she was more disappointed in Commissioner Brittany Cavacas, who called Notte a “b-tch.” The expletive was broadcast live on PEG-TV. Brittany Cavacas is the daughter of Hurley Cavacas.
LaFemina said most commissioners did apologize to her following the meeting.
She cited the behavior displayed by commissioners last month as the reason she and fellow student representative Hannah Solimano decided to participate virtually on Tuesday.
“We were afraid of what might happen in a public meeting with all those commissioners again,” she said.
Despite the acrimony — or, perhaps, in spite of it — LaFemina said her time on the board has been educational.
“I’ve learned some valuable lessons regarding how to talk to other people and how to be a member of society without attacking people with opposite views as me,” she said. “I think, throughout all of this, I’ve learned that school boards aren’t perfect but I would love to serve on one eventually. But with the right attitude, with the students’ intentions at heart.”
But while Tuesday’s vote settles matter for now, the days of schools using Native American mascots and imagery may be numbered.
Across the country, about 20 state legislatures have enacted or are considering laws addressing the use of Native-themed mascots in K-12 schools, according to a state activity tracker on the National Congress of American Indians website.
Last year, Colorado, Nevada and Washington enacted bans.
Around the Northeast, Maine passed a law banning the use of Native-themed mascots and names in 2019 and bills have been introduced in Massachusetts and New York.
Connecticut also passed a law stating that municipalities with schools that use Native-themed mascots or names will lose grant funding from the state’s two tribal casinos.
Earlier this week, New Hampshire lawmakers introduced a bill prohibiting the use of Native American mascots in public schools, colleges and universities.
In an electronic message Wednesday, Rep. William Notte, D-Rutland, confirmed he would be introducing a bill similar to Maine’s.
The bill was introduced Friday and referred to the House Education Committee.
Rep. Notte is the husband of Commissioner Alison Notte.
The bill, which has 25 co-sponsors in addition to Rep. Notte, proposes to “prohibit a public school or public postsecondary school from having or adopting a name, symbol, or image that depicts or refers to a racial or ethnic group, individual, custom, or tradition and that is used as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead, or team name of the school.”
The bill further states, “Any public school not in compliance three years after passage of this act shall be ineligible to compete in Vermont Principals’ Association-sanctioned events.”
Rep. Notte was uncertain if the bill would get any traction this session, noting that lawmakers will be busy dealing with pandemic-related issues.
“But as a legislature we are committed to racial equity issues and this bill feels like lowest of low-hanging fruit,” he wrote.
He added that he didn’t believe the bill would run into any First Amendment issues, calling it “a pretty simple bill” from a legal standpoint.
He explained that while a school district has a right to name their sports team whatever they want, they don’t have a right “to force the connotations of that name on other communities.”
So while an outright ban has yet to materialize in Vermont, the Vermont Principals’ Association has taken a position on the matter.
In August 2020, the VPA released a statement declaring, “Any mascot, nickname, symbol or logo that has marginalizing, racist or exclusionary elements should be replaced to demonstrate what it means to be an inclusive, welcoming, and strong community.”
On Friday, VPA Executive Director Jay Nichols wrote in an email that the organization stands by that statement, adding that he was disappointed by the board’s decision.
“We realize this is a local decision, but to support a mascot image or name that is racist or discriminatory toward some of the students a school system is serving flies in the face of public schools creating inclusionary environments for all students,” he stated.
Representatives of local native communities have also been consistent in their opposition the use of Native-themed mascots and names.
Rich Holschuh, a representative of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, said he was “dismayed” by the return of the Raiders and arrowhead.
He said Vermont’s Indigenous communities, as well as the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, have made their position clear on the use of Native imagery and mascots, stating, “It’s inappropriate.”
He added that the local Indigenous communities have been open to having direct conversations about the issue.
“There has been no response,” he said. “The board and members of the community seem to continue to want to talk to each other in a circle and not with listen to anyone else’s viewpoints or perspectives on a topic which is not theirs to control. It’s not their culture.”
Holschuh claimed a lack of knowledge on Indigenous issues as the reason people oppose the change.
“If Rutland schools and all of the other schools in the state were teaching Indigenous education and if people actually knew how those histories went down in their places where they are — Rutland among them — we would not be at this point, because then they would understand what they were doing and recognize that it’s out of line,” he said.
Holschuh said legislation may be the best solution, however, he argued it shouldn’t be necessary to “legislate morality.”
Moreover, he posited that if people would simply consult with the Indigenous communities, legislation wouldn’t be necessary.
“Talk to human beings and ask them about their culture and how they see it. And that is not being done,” he said. “How can you think that you have any authenticity in discussing something about which you know very little?”
Lawmakers from Vermont’s more rural districts are introducing a bill that would, among other things, ease Act 250 restrictions around the forest products industry.
H.581, “An act relating to rural economic development,” is an omnibus bill crafted by the House Rural Caucus using work done by the Rural Economic Development Working Group, which, over the summer, traveled the state talking to citizens connected to the state’s forest industry.
The bill can be tracked online at bit.ly/0114RuralBill, the legislature’s website. It would:
— Establish the Forest Future Program, a plan meant to strengthen, modernize, promote and protect the state’s forest products industry.
— Reduce the requirements for protecting primary agricultural soils for forest-based enterprises, and community wastewater systems that serve housing developments within designated centers.
— Ease restrictions around hours of operation for forest-based enterprises.
— Clarify Act 250’s jurisdiction over recreational trails.
— Create an Act 250 master plan permit for towns without designated village centers.
— Amend the Act 250 jurisdictional trigger for affordable housing in designated centers.
— Clarify the definition of “accessory on-farm business” and how they are regulated.
— Increase the allowable weight for large trucks and require the Department of Motor Vehicles to centralize an online permitting system by Jan. 1, 2023.
— Establish a Municipal Fuel Switching Grant Program that would financially help towns find renewable fuel sources for heating their buildings.
House Rep. Katherine Sims, D-Craftsbury, said at a news conference Thursday that the Forest Future Program would be modeled after the Farm to Plate Program, and “would work to support existing and potential forest space businesses that are working to sustainably manage Vermont’s forest land.”
Vermont should look at its forests in much the same way it has its farms, she said. This aspect of the omnibus bill would also further the Vermont Climate Action Plan.
Rep. Lucy Rogers, D-Waterville, said the rural working group heard quite often from people about how navigating Act 250 has been a barrier to the forest economy.
“The first section of the bill has to do with hours of operation, with the understanding that the forest based industry is very weather dependent, and especially with more extreme weather events coming to Vermont with climate change it becomes increasingly important that you are able to do work when the weather permits, whether that’s frozen logging roads in the winter or those few springs days, or often spring nights as the case may be, when it gets below freezing enough to safely drive a truck on the roads, so we are looking for language that would enable forest-based businesses to work at the appropriate hours of operation,” she said.
The bill also looks at easing the financial burdens associated with disrupting primary agricultural soil. Rogers said forest-based businesses often protect forest soil, even if they disrupt soil for agriculture.
The bill would also exempt certain forest-based enterprises from Act 250 regulation if they’re under a certain size.
Rep. Charles Kimbell, D-Woodstock, the bill’s lead sponsor, said he expects any numbers in the bill will be tweaked by the legislative committees looking at it.
Part of the omnibus bill would have pre-established recreational trails not governed by Act 250, Kimbell said.
“We really want to engage stakeholders in this process, and so what is proposed here is some ways that we might be able to do that engagement,” he said. “We’ll have some discussion about that later, but part of it is to also make sure that pre-established trail systems were not subject to Act 250 jurisdiction, so if they’re already in existence this is to allow them to continue in that way.”
The bill also would allow a community to establish an Act 250 master permit, even if it doesn’t have a designated village center. Kimbell said towns could work with outside consultants or their county’s regional planning commission.
“Access to affordable housing in rural communities starts with investments in water and wastewater infrastructure,” said Rep. Daniel Noyes, D-Wolcott. “We also need to encourage developers to invest in housing for families and older Vermonters.”
This part of the bill would remove permitting barriers for housing developments in village centers and the like, “where the towns have had discussions as to where and what type of development they want to see,” said Noyes.
According to Kimbell, a previous law making it easier to establish an accessory business on a farm could use some clarification.
“There’s been a lot of confusion among town development review boards and by applicants, and also the Natural Resources Board in interpreting how accessory on-farm businesses could be permitted,” he said. “The purpose of this section of the bill is to provide some greater clarity and to look at establishing the size of the development to one acre or less, to look at the size of a building that may be constructed if they’re not using an existing building to say 4,000 square feet or less, and to also say the accessory on-farm business does not necessarily have to be subordinate to the farm, but would have to generate no more revenue than $200,000 per year.”
Rogers said the trucking and transportation piece of the bill would increase the weight limits on six- and seven-axled vehicles, bringing them more in line with what’s allowed in New York. It also gives the Department of Motor Vehicles a date by which it has to create an online portal to manage municipal trucking permits. Rogers said the rural working group heard quite often from the forest industry that different towns all have varying permit requirements.
Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-West Dover, said the thermal fuel switching proposal found in the omnibus bill isn’t new to lawmakers.
“This part of our bill seeks to connect existing work that the Legislature has done through a state Energy Management Plan expansion we put together last year for municipalities,” she said. “Vermont municipalities own and maintain more than 7,000 old buildings that are really expensive to heat and have a large carbon footprint. With our commitment to meet 90% of the state’s total energy demand from renewables by 2050, 35% of Vermont’s thermal energy needs from wood head by 2030, we think that in order to meet our climate goals and protect the budgets in our rural communities we must compliment our weatherization efforts with support for municipalities to thermal fuel switch, including modern wood heat.”
This part of the bill expands existing programs and helps towns get better technical support in finding more efficient heating fuel, she said.
“The historic omnibus bill that we’re talking about today was created from testimony that was gathered in the field over the summer and fall as the Rural Caucus traveled the state learning about the various aspects of Vermont’s forest economy from our local practitioners,” she said earlier in the press conference.
The caucus is tripartisan and has around 40 members who meet regularly. It has existed for several election cycles now, according to Kimbell.
Rep. Martha Feltus, R-Lyndon, said Vermont’s rural areas depend on small employers and entrepreneurs, and have highly localized commercial networks and social services.
“Parts of this legislation, I think, will capitalize on the positive aspects of those parts of the rural areas, and I think ultimately it will help strengthen our entire state by making the rural areas stronger,” she said.
The Rutland girls basketball team didn’t leave the outcome in doubt playing against rival Mount Anthony on Thursday. B1