Vermont’s students are set to begin school in the fall as they would in past years with the requirements being that their temperatures are checked daily and that the staff wear masks. Schools are also required to amp up their monitoring and to have the necessary cleaning supplies and protective equipment on hand. The cost of this return to “normalcy” is an estimated $40 million.

The cost is minimal in comparison to the benefit. Lost time in the classroom is something that is difficult, if not impossible, to make up. It’s a deficit felt most keenly among the disadvantaged, meaning those who don’t have acceptable access to the internet, or students with troubled home environments, or students with parents who haven’t the time or inclination to make sure their students participate in their remote learning environments.

In many of our schools that at-risk cohort amounts to as much as 25 percent of the class. Under the state’s new guidance, if there is an outbreak in any school, or any specific region, schools could be required to switch back to the remote learning example of last spring.

That’s an untenable potential. The remote learning exercise we just went through worked for some, particularly the well-heeled, but not for most, and it did not work at all for those at the lowest end of the socio-economic ladder. When the deficiency within this cohort is extrapolated to the years ahead, the cost is something we should avoid at all costs.

Which gets us back to Vermont, and how we’ve handled the crisis, and how we should respond should there be another outbreak.

Comparatively, we’ve done better than all others in terms of the speed of our response and the leadership necessary to gain the public’s trust and cooperation. In general, Vermonters wear their masks and are cognizant of the need to social distance. Compare our collective mentality versus what’s going on in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California.

Still, even for Vermont, the times ahead are stuffed with question marks. Tourists are beginning to find their way to Vermont. The state’s colleges and universities intend to be as fully operational as they can be in September. Detailed plans are still being worked on to make sure that every contingency is addressed. Gov. Phil Scott is still making himself available to Vermonters each week through his press conferences.

While wearing masks and practicing social distancing have contributed greatly to the state’s low case level, the spread of the virus is still something immune to even our best efforts. It’s a case of hoping for the best but planning for the worst.

Unless Vermont retreats to the same case levels in March and April, the hope is that any outbreak is dealt with surgically instead of en masse. Let’s do all within our power to protect those most at risk — seniors, nursing homes, etc. — but be reluctant to close down the entire economy.

As well has Vermont has performed, we’re still staring a budget loss in the hundreds of millions and there is little confidence the federal government will rush to our aid as it did in the spring. What we have before us is the challenge of managing risk. Intelligently.

by Emerson Lynn

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