Victoria Rhodin: I’m appalled at the secretary of education’s arrogance

This commentary is by Victoria Rhodin of Montpelier, a clinical social worker, mother and grandmother with an extensive mask collection.

I am appalled at Secretary of Education Dan French’s criticism of the Washington Central school superintendent who reinstated her school system’s mask mandate during the current outbreak of Covid.

Superintendent Jennifer Miller-Arsenault took responsibility for the health of the students and staff in the Washington Central Unified School District, consistent with the recommendations of the US Centers for Disease Control. Secretary French arrogantly states, “I am unaware your school district has greater public health expertise than the Vermont Department of Health,” at the same time that our state’s health department is defying the evidence-based recommendations of the CDC.

Here is a personal story. It isn’t intended to be a hard-luck tale, though it may read that way. The young working people described here have far better family and community support than many of their fellow Vermonters, and they are not in the hospital so far. What they’re experiencing has happened, or is happening, to many other people in this complicated time, and with all of us working together, they will get through it.

But it illustrates the impact of leaving Covid prevention in public schools to “personal responsibility,” because it’s the story of what can happen when one person in a school setting doesn’t prioritize the health of the community in a time of high Covid transmission.

My beloved son-in-law works supporting children with intense emotional and behavioral needs in a Vermont public school. His work di lui requires skill, devotion and a lot of daily close contact. The school whose children he serves is located in one of the three Vermont counties where Covid transmission has been very high.

Unfortunately for my son-in-law, that school, like many others, has decided Covid prevention is a matter of personal choice (responsibility?), In line with our governor’s recent recommendations. A few days ago, he came down with Covid, presumably caught from a child or colleague who was infectious but not required to mask.

My beloved daughter is a social worker serving children and families with complex mental health needs in an underserved part of our state. (“Underserved” by social workers, health care workers and educators, that is – but “overserved” at present by the Covid virus.) She’s also in graduate school. Yesterday she, too, tested positive for Covid, presumably caught from her husband di lei, the person in the previous paragraph. Now she is at home quarantining, friends are bringing food by, and the people she serves day to day are going without the care they need.

Both my beloved family members are really sick – not “mild cold symptoms.” Like many other Vermonters, both have unrelated medical conditions that place them at higher risk of complications from Covid. Both are BIPOC, which conveys further risk of Covid complications.

It goes without saying that my beloved relatives are vaccinated and boosted and take many precautions to avoid contracting Covid. Their toddler son, however, is not old enough to be vaccinated. He has spent the past week with one set of grandparents, where he and his dad were visiting when his dad got sick, and he will go from there to the other grandparents until it’s safe to go back home.

Although the grandparents are employed, they’re fortunate to do work that can be folded around a small child. At some point, I bet he’d like to go home to his own family and toys and bed, but for right now the big job is to try to keep him from catching Covid from his parents di lui. Will he luck out? What will be the longer-term impacts of the extended and unexpected separation from his parents di lui, that he isn’t old enough to understand verbally? Maybe he’ll remember it as I remember similar times from my own childhood, as a special, fun time with elders who adore him?

Here’s one more thing you may not have known, but as Vermont taxpayers we need to know. Apparently my son-in-law’s school does not provide short- or long-term disability coverage for staff who exceed their sick days. So his week out of work – thanks to an unmasked infectious person he was trying to help – is unpaid. Did you know that? I didn’t.

A young Vermont family’s budget doesn’t have the kind of cushion that allows for losing a week’s pay. Maybe the union can help? Maybe workers compensation? Maybe GoFundMe, if it comes to that?

All of this is very possibly the result of one infected person not wearing a mask at school, and a state government that considers the health of the community a matter of “personal responsibility.”

If Secretary French is truly concerned that Vermont is too small to make decisions about Covid mitigation county by county, he should mandate masking statewide when the risk of transmission is high in one or more counties. A less extreme approach would be to support those schools that make efforts to protect their students, staff and communities against the spread of Covid during times of high transmission.

Thanks to Superintendent Miller-Arsenault for bravely doing the right thing, and I hope other educators and our state government will follow her example.

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Tags: CDC, Dan French, Jennifer Miller-Arsenault, school mask mandate, victoria rhodin, Washington Central school district


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