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Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Environmental Officials Ask for Two More Years to Test Schools for PCBs

Posted By on Wed, Mar 16, 2022 at 5:11 PM

A sign outside Burlington High School's Institute Road campus - FILE: COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • A sign outside Burlington High School's Institute Road campus
Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation officials are asking state legislators for a two-year extension on the deadline to test schools for airborne PCBs. They say the extra time will allow them to better support schools that detect contamination from the toxic chemicals, also known as polychlorinated biphenyls .

Last year, lawmakers allocated $4.5 million to test every Vermont school constructed before 1980 for PCBs. The deadline: July 1, 2024. The legislation followed the discovery of airborne PCBs at Burlington High School in the fall of 2020 — as the school district prepared for extensive renovations — that led to the campus's closure. Last year, Burlington school commissioners voted to raze the existing building and build a new one on the high school's Institute Road campus.

State officials have prepared for statewide PCB testing by surveying schools to see which ones qualify and contracting with six environmental consulting firms to conduct the work. They've also released updated guidance that details what schools must do if certain levels of contaminants are found. 
But in a meeting of the Senate Education Committee last week, DEC Commissioner Peter Walke and senior environmental program manager Patricia Coppolino told lawmakers that the 2024 deadline won't allow them to provide a personalized response to schools with elevated airborne PCB concentrations.

"I think we set ourselves up for an inability to provide that level of service that Vermonters are going to want in response to the discovery of PCBs in school if  we try to rush the testing process," Walke told lawmakers.

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Thursday, March 3, 2022

Vermont Will Lift School Masking Guidance on March 14

Posted By on Thu, Mar 3, 2022 at 6:01 PM

Education Secretary Dan French - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Education Secretary Dan French
Updated 6:51 p.m.

As of March 14, Vermont will no longer recommend that students and staff of all ages and vaccination status wear masks in K-12 schools, officials said on Thursday. That will align schools with the state's guidance — or lack thereof — for all Vermonters.

While the state is eliminating its mask guidance, officials said that individual school districts can ultimately impose their own rules. And in districts that do away with masks, students have the right to wear face coverings — with "no stigma surrounding that" — if they choose to, Gov. Phil Scott said at his weekly press conference on Thursday.

"We need to remember, a person who wears a mask has their own good reason to do so, and respect that," said Patsy Kelso, the state epidemiologist, who stood in Thursday for Health Commissioner Mark Levine.

The decision also applies to school buses, according to Education Secretary Dan French, "since masks are no longer required on school buses as a result of a recent change in federal regulation."

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Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Voters Reject School Board Candidates With Divisive Platforms

Posted By on Wed, Mar 2, 2022 at 1:27 PM

  • Matt Mignanelli

Updated at 2:17 p.m.

On Town Meeting Day, voters around Vermont roundly rejected school board candidates who ran on divisive, political issues.

Last month, Seven Days documented the phenomenon of national culture war issues filtering down to the local school board level, where elections are nonpartisan. But those Vermont candidates, running for boards including Mill River, Milton and Springfield, failed to garner enough support for their grievances about critical race theory, "socialism" and "indoctrination" of students.

In Milton, three candidates — Brock Rouse, Nichole Delong and Scott O'Brien — sent out a manifesto citing those exact issues, and all lost by hundreds of votes.

Had Rouse, Delong and O'Brien won, they would have formed a majority on the five-member school board. Some community members feared that could have led to a reversal of some recent equity initiatives in the district.
In Rutland, a debate over the Raiders mascot fueled a crowded race, with 10 candidates running for four seats. The school board had first ditched — then brought back — the name in a matter of 18 months.

A slate of four candidates — Karen Bossi, Heather Hauke, Cindy Laskevich and Bob Pearo — had support from Republican LG candidate Gregory Thayer, who described them as "pro-Raider, anti-Woke and Indoctrination."

Another group of four — Courtney Collins, Sara Doenges, Marybeth Lennox-Levins and Marisa Kiefaber — were promoted by the left-leaning political group Rutland Forward. 

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Tuesday, March 1, 2022

New Burlington High School Could Cost $207 Million, District Says

Posted By on Tue, Mar 1, 2022 at 8:17 PM

Burlington High School's Institute Road campus - FILE: COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Burlington High School's Institute Road campus
Updated at 9:46 p.m.

The Burlington School District said on Tuesday that a new high school and technical center could come with a price tag of somewhere between $161 million and $207 million.

That estimate doesn't include an additional $26 million to $29 million the district would need to demolish the current buildings on the Institute Road campus and safely remove contaminated soils and building materials.

The district released the estimate on the afternoon of Town Meeting Day, as Burlingtonians voted on a potential tax hike and a capital bond for new city spending. Also on the ballot was the $98.2 million school budget, which represented a 13.1 percent increase in per-pupil spending over last year. But the district said it would likely amount to a reduction for taxpayers because of a surplus in the state education fund.

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Thursday, February 24, 2022

Senate Education Committee Votes to Advance Mascot Bill

Posted By on Thu, Feb 24, 2022 at 7:00 PM

The scoreboard at Rutland High School in the fall of 2021 - FILE: ALISON NOVAK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Alison Novak ©️ Seven Days
  • The scoreboard at Rutland High School in the fall of 2021
The Vermont Senate Education Committee voted 5-1 on Thursday to advance S.139, a bill that would require schools to adopt a policy prohibiting mascots or team names that directly or indirectly reference or stereotype a racial or ethnic group.

The bill calls for the Vermont Agency of Education to work with the Vermont School Boards Association and other groups to develop a "model school nondiscriminatory branding" policy by August 1 of this year. “School branding” is defined as “any name, symbol or image used by a school as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead, team name, slogan, motto or other identifier.”

School boards for both public and independent schools would be required to either adopt the state’s policy or create one of their own that is “at least as comprehensive” by January 1, 2023. Schools that violate the policy would be given until May 1 of that year to select new branding to take effect in the 2023-2024 school year.

It's unclear how the state would enforce the policy.

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Friday, February 18, 2022

Milton School Board Race Jolted By Candidates’ Manifesto

Posted By on Fri, Feb 18, 2022 at 6:27 PM

At a 2017 school board meeting in Milton - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • At a 2017 school board meeting in Milton
Three candidates running for the nonpartisan Milton school board have raised alarm in the community after releasing a list of “shared beliefs” that references critical race theory, “indoctrination,” as well as support for the “nuclear family” and “law and order.”

Several of the 21 bullet points echo politicized talking points that have pulled school boards into the national culture wars. Seven Days wrote about the trend in a cover story published on Wednesday.

Should the three candidates — Brock Rouse, Scott O'Brien and Nichole Delong — win election at Town Meeting Day on March 1, they would have the votes to control the direction of the five-member school board. Some community members believe such a scenario could lead the board to walk back some of the district's recent equity initiatives.

Milton Town School District board chair Rick Dooley, who faces a challenge from Delong for a one-year seat on the board, said the messaging coming from the three candidates is concerning.

"The town and the school all benefit when the board is working together, they're coming from their individual backgrounds, their individual ideologies, they evaluate facts, they look at information, they have a robust discussion and they make a decision based on what's best for the Milton Town School District," Dooley said in an interview Thursday. "And I don't think you will have that if you have a politically charged group that is looking to take over a majority stake in the board."

Some of the tenets listed in the candidates' email "are not in the purview of the school board," Dooley added.

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Despite State Guidance, Some Highly Vaxxed School Districts Will Keep Masks On

Posted By on Fri, Feb 18, 2022 at 1:32 PM

  • Sarah Cronin
On Tuesday, Gov. Phil Scott announced that schools could stop requiring masks on February 28 if at least 80 percent of their students were vaccinated against COVID-19.

"The fact is, our kids need to get back to normal," Scott said at his weekly press conference. "They've been through a lot. So we should begin this transition as soon as possible."

"In the very near future, if all goes to plan, we intend to recommend lifting the mask requirement recommendation altogether," he added.

But in the days following the announcement, some superintendents in the most highly vaxxed parts of the state — Chittenden and Washington counties — have signaled that they will proceed cautiously when it comes to ditching the face coverings.
All six of the schools in the Champlain Valley School District — which draws students from Charlotte, Hinesburg, Shelburne and Williston — have vaccination rates near or above 80 percent, according to superintendent Rene Sanchez. Leading the way is Champlain Valley Union High School, where about 91.5 percent students have had at least two COVID-19 vaccine jabs.

But with a number of unanswered questions about the guidance, all students and staff in the district will remain masked when they return from school break on February 28, Sanchez wrote in a letter to families on Wednesday. Part of the concern, Sanchez wrote, is that the date for lifting masking requirements coincides with a return from vacation, a time when many students will be traveling.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Schools With High Vax Rates Can Lift Mask Requirements Soon

Posted By on Tue, Feb 15, 2022 at 9:13 PM

Gov. Phil Scott at a December press conference - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Gov. Phil Scott at a December press conference
With COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations dropping, Vermont is putting into place long-delayed guidance that says schools can stop requiring masks when 80 percent of students are vaccinated.

The move, which takes effect on February 28, is aimed at alleviating some of the social anxiety that students have experienced since the pandemic began two years ago, Gov. Phil Scott said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. He added that he hopes to soon lift mask requirements in schools altogether.

“Our kids need to get back to normal,” Scott said.

The governor said that he’d heard of schools where students are not allowed to use the library, talk with others at lunch, or play without masks on the playground. Mental health professionals, parents and students themselves have reported that last year's prolonged period of virtual instruction, and the continuing uncertainty and isolation of the pandemic, has been bad for students' psychological well-being.

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Thursday, February 3, 2022

Vermont Again Adds New PCB Guidance Ahead of Testing in Schools

Posted By on Thu, Feb 3, 2022 at 2:07 PM

Burlington High School - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Burlington High School
The State of Vermont released guidance on Wednesday that details what schools must do if certain levels of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are found in indoor air. New figures included in the memo are significantly higher than what the state deemed tolerable in the fall of 2020, when Burlington High School detected the chemicals and shuttered its New North End campus.

The newest thresholds — dubbed "immediate action levels" — are also three times higher than the "school action levels" the state released in November.

The changes come as the state Department of Environmental Conservation prepares to tests hundreds of schools across Vermont. Results of those tests could prove costly — and disruptive — for school districts if high levels of the chemicals are detected.

Under the new regs, schools can't use rooms with more than 90 nanograms per cubic meter of PCBs in the air for prekindergarten students; more than 180 nanograms for K-6 students; and more than 300 nanograms for seventh graders through adults.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Rutland City School Board Votes to Reinstate Raiders Name

Posted By on Wed, Jan 12, 2022 at 4:18 PM

Rutland City School Board's January 12 meeting - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • Rutland City School Board's January 12 meeting
In a decision that showcased a deep ideological rift among members, the Rutland City School Board voted 6-5 late Tuesday to reinstate the Raiders moniker for its sports teams.

The move reversed a 6-4 board decision made 15 months ago to retire the name because it perpetuated racist stereotypes.

The mascot issue was not initially on the agenda for Tuesday's Rutland City School Board meeting, which lasted five hours. But at its start, board member Tricia O'Connor introduced a resolution to reinstate the Raiders name.

Last February, the board voted to adopt the Ravens mascot, a name  chosen by students. But school officials have since taken little action to officially change signage and uniforms, and the board has remained mired in public squabbles around the topic. 

During the final hour of Tuesday's meeting — following subdued presentations around the school budget and other funding — board members got emotional during the discussion about bringing back the Raiders name.

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