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A Vermont school district reimposed a mask mandate. The state’s top education official urged it not to.

Dan French, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education, speaks during a Covid-19 press conference on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

On March 25, faced with rising Covid-19 cases, administrators in Vermont’s Washington Central Unified Union School District announced that they would reimpose their mask mandate.

Citing guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the district announced that it would require masks in all indoor spaces starting March 28. Schools needed to “normalize masking in times of high viral activity,” administrators said.

But that decision drew swift criticism — from the state’s top education official. 

On the same day that school officials announced the return of the mask mandate, Secretary of Education Dan French emailed the superintendent and urged her to drop it, emails show. 

“I want to point out this is not consistent with Vermont Department of Health guidance, and if we are asked we will be saying so in the media,” French told the superintendent in an email obtained through a public records request. “From our perspective, Vermont’s counties are too small to use CDC recommendations to guide local decision-making in this manner.”

Jennifer Miller-Arsenault, the district’s interim superintendent, defended the district’s decision in an email back to French. 

“Throughout the pandemic, our district has made decisions based on science,” Miller-Arsenault wrote. “Our community, by and large, has expressed gratitude and support for the decisions we have made, and we have underscored our need to remain flexible and responsive as conditions change.”

In a terse reply an hour later, French doubled down. 

“With all due respect, I am unaware that your district has greater public health expertise than the Vermont Department of Health,” he said. “I strongly encourage you to defer to their expertise in these types of decisions.”

The exchange — in which the state’s highest-ranking education official pressed a local school official to reverse a safety measure — appears to represent an unusual disagreement over Covid-19 safety rules.

Ted Fisher, a spokesperson for the Agency of Education, said that French “wanted to be sure” that Miller-Arsenault knew that her district was not following state guidance.

“Having districts switch back and forth, particularly on a district-by-district basis, is far from ideal, particularly at a time when students need to be able to focus entirely on learning, growth and engagement with their peers,” Fisher said in an email. 

Last week, three Vermont counties — Washington, Essex and Windsor — registered high community levels of Covid-19, according to a CDC rubric that takes into account case rates and hospital usage. 

The federal agency recommends that people wear masks indoors “including in K-12 schools and other indoor community settings” in counties with high Covid-19 community levels. 

In the Washington Central school district, which serves students from Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester, school officials had decided to follow that advice. In a memorandum of understanding signed by the district’s superintendent, school board chair, and leaders of the teachers union, officials agreed to “follow CDC guidelines on masking.”

“We have immunocompromised staff and students in all of our buildings,” Miller-Arsenault said in an interview. “We have pre-kindergartens filled with 3- and 4-year-olds who aren’t yet vaccine-eligible. And we made decisions based on the health and safety of the school community.”

The mask mandate is in effect through April 1, at which point officials will reconsider whether to extend it, Miller-Arsenault said. 

At least one other Vermont school district, the Hartford School District, reimposed a mask mandate starting on March 28. But Hartford Superintendent Thomas DeBalsi said that, as of March 30, he’d heard nothing from the Agency of Education regarding that decision.

U-32 Middle & High School in East Montpelier. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Fisher said that he wasn’t sure state officials were “made aware of other districts making a similar decision.”

State officials announced in early March that they would be lifting their recommendation that schools enforce a mask mandate by March 14.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott has argued that lifting such mandates will improve students’ mental health, allowing them to see the faces of their classmates and teachers. 

“The ongoing strain on our kids’ mental health is far outweighing the risk from Covid amongst this age group,” Scott said at a February press conference.

But, throughout the pandemic, state officials have also highlighted their commitment to allowing school districts to set their own Covid-19 safety measures. 

Fisher said that the state remained committed to that principle of local control. 

State agencies “have not been afraid to make strong recommendations in the past,” he said in an email. “We don’t think it’s a good idea for school districts to set conflicting standards, particularly when those are not based on recommendations made by the Health Department.”He noted that, when the Canaan school district declined to follow the state’s recommendation to require masks in schools, French had “visited the community to engage with families and understand why they chose to go against the State’s recommendation.”

Correction: This article has been corrected to clarify which towns are part of the Washington Central school district.

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Tags: Dan French, Jennifer Miller-Arsenault, masking order, Ted Fisher, Vermont Department of Health, Vermont Health Department, Washington Central Supervisory Union, Washington Central Unified Union School District

Peter D'Auria

About Peter

Peter D’Auria covers education for VTDigger. Prior to moving to Vermont, he worked for The Jersey Journal, The Chilkat Valley News and Willamette Week. He is originally from Portland, Oregon.