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Covid19
Vt. inmates in Mississippi test positive for COVID-19

MONTPELIER — Six inmates who were housed at a private prison in Mississippi returned to Vermont and tested positive for coronavirus.

According to the Department of Corrections, the inmates were taken from Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility and arrived at Marble Valley Regional Correctional Facility in Rutland on Tuesday.

The department said in a statement all of the inmates were immediately tested and quarantined. A seventh inmate, who remained at the private prison, has also tested positive. State officials said contract tracing is underway to find out how the inmates picked up the virus that causes COVID-19 and to see who else they may have been in contact with.

At Gov. Phil Scott’s Friday news conference, Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, said the inmates were transported on a bus and the bus company has been notified. There were two employees from the company on the bus. Rachel Feldman, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said the inmates were brought back to Vermont for programming and release planning.

Smith said the state has reduced its prison population from around 1,600 inmates pre-pandemic to a low of about 1,300. Even so, the secretary said the extra space is being used for quarantine in case there is an outbreak at a facility, or inmates are brought in who need to be in quarantine. Meaning the state still lacks capacity for its out-of-state inmates.

“Having those quarantined facilities available and staffed is particularly important at this particular time,” he said.

There are 219 Vermont inmates in Mississippi, but the department is looking to reduce that number to 180.

Smith said all of the state’s inmates at the private prison, with the exception of 16 who refused and the one who already tested positive, have been tested in response to the seven positive tests.

Vermont dealt with its own outbreak of the virus at Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans in early April. Since then, the state has started regularly testing all of the inmates in Vermont and staff.

That didn’t happen for the state’s inmates in Mississippi. Smith said that state had been doing what Vermont was doing at the start of the pandemic and only testing those who had symptoms. That occurred here because there weren’t enough tests at the time for those who didn’t have symptoms.

Vermont boasts one of the lowest infection rates in the country. But Mississippi announced Friday it had seen its highest single-day death toll at 52 new deaths from the virus. The state reported 1,168 new cases. Vermont has 57 deaths from the virus and announced eight new cases Friday.

Smith said Vermont inmates in Mississippi will now be tested regularly like their counterparts in this state.

Though Vermont is responsible for the care of those in its custody, Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the Department of Health, said this situation shouldn’t be seen as a failure. Levine said this shows the state’s procedures are working because the inmates were tested and quarantined so they didn’t have an opportunity to spread the virus here.

eric.blaisdell @timesargus.com


Mary Fettig, of East Montpelier, selects a flat of tomatoes Friday at the Cate Farm in East Montpelier. The farm sells 10-pound flats of B-grade organic tomatoes on Tuesday and Friday mornings.

Seeing Red


Covid19
Washington Central School Board
Board embraces 'maximum flexibility' for teachers

EAST MONTPELIER — The Washington Central School Board has approved a couple of out-of-the-box accommodations designed to make it easier for teachers with children to return to their classrooms, while creating a new leave option for those who would prefer not to.

Officials agreed they aren’t perfect solutions, and all are accompanied by yet-to-be-answered questions, but the board voted, 7-1, Thursday night to bless a four-point plan aimed at eliminating obstacles for some teachers willing to resume in-person instruction, while providing an extra off-ramp for others who either can’t or won’t.

Eight days after appointing three members to explore the issue, the board easily approved recommendations School Director Stephen Looke said represented the subcommittee’s thinking on the subject.

Two of the proposals are exclusively aimed at parents with school-aged children who live in districts that may adopt schedules that are different than the one now being contemplated for pre-K-12 students in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester.

“The intent … was to ... support the people who work in our district as much as we could by giving them increased flexibility to still be able to come to work,” Looke said, outlining the two proposals.

Though Looke said the subcommittee didn’t “delve into the details,” members generally agreed to offer teachers with school-aged children a safe, supervised space for them to learn remotely when dictated by the schedule in the districts where they live.

When schools reopen on Sept. 8, Washington Central plans to resume in-person instruction for pre-K-8 students five days a week. That is significantly more traditional classroom time than is currently being contemplated in many — if not most — other districts.

Looke said the subcommittee didn’t concern itself with the space, or spaces, that might be needed, or the cost of supervision. It’s primary objective he said was to extend an accommodation to teachers for whom childcare would pose a new challenge to returning to work.

That was also the thinking behind a second proposal, which, where space allowed, would provide teachers the options of enrolling their children in the school system where they work instead of the one where they live.

Barring a legislative change, Superintendent Bryan Olkowski said funding generated by those children would remain in their home districts and Washington Central would absorb the cost of educating them.

Olkowski stressed the offer would be constrained by class sizes and state guidelines and teachers employed at one of Washington Central’s five elementary schools might need to enroll their child in one of the others. It is also conceivable a lottery system might need to be deployed.

According to Olkowski’s “very rough estimates,” there are perhaps 40 students in play. Roughly 20, he said, belong to teachers at one of Washington Central’s five elementary schools and another 20 belong to teachers at U-32 Middle and High School.

Eager to make it easier for those teachers to return to the classroom, board members embraced what School Director Kari Bradley described as two “maximum flexibility” proposals, while acknowledging they are flying a bit blind.

It isn’t yet clear how many parents who live in the district will elect to keep their children home.

“We won’t really know until we open the doors and they (students) start showing up,” Bradley said.

It also isn’t clear how many eligible teachers will elect of two options offered in hopes of facilitating their return to the classroom.

“We’re really in a tough limbo right now,” School Director Dorothy Naylor said.

Olkowski agreed, citing the potential the state could ease social distancing guidelines for schools that were adopted in June and are at least partly responsible for some district’s decisions to limit in-person instruction to start the school year. If that happens, he said, those district’s plans may change, reducing the need for the accommodations the board approved Thursday night.

Bradley was somewhat more skeptical of the subcommittee’s suggestion the district offer a new “discretionary leave” option for teachers, noting the district’s staffing needs are a concern heading into an uncertain school year.

However, Bradley joined a majority of the board in authorizing Olkowski to both establish a deadline for discretionary unpaid leave requests, and determine how many to approve based on the district’s staffing needs.

Teachers granted discretionary leave wouldn’t be paid and would have to pick up the cost of their health insurance, which ranges from $10,000 to $25,000. However, they would be entitled to return to work next year.

The collectively bargained teachers contract already affords teachers a range of leave options, and others are available through federal law. Some are paid and are available for specific purpose, some require prior approval, and others are either unpaid or paid at a portion of a teacher’s regular salary.

Board members agreed it wouldn’t hurt to provide another leave option with the understanding Olkowski could decide whether it should be granted based on the needs of the district. They also agreed to funnel all leave requests to an independent “auditor” for review to ensure consistency with respect to eligibility decisions.

The subcommittee’s recommendations were approved as a package with School Director Jonas Eno-Van Fleet casting the lone dissent.

Eno-Van Fleet has expressed concern over a plan to return to in-person instruction for the vast majority of the district’s pre-K-8 students. He said the subcommittee’s proposal was a “creative” solution to the childcare problem some teachers might face, but feared it was not without risk.

“I appreciate and respect the clear desire to go back to school as much as possible … but Vermont is where it is because we have done a good job keeping human beings away from each other,” he said. “The idea of putting more people into (our) buildings just doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.”

david.delcore @timesargus.com


Local
Montpelier Police Chief Testifies
Peete: Defunding police is not the answer

MONTPELIER — Police Chief Brian Peete says defunding police isn’t the answer when it comes to police reform.

Peete took part in a Friday morning Zoom panel discussion. The discussion, which saw more than 30 people attend, was hosted by the Systemic Diversity and Inclusion Group.

The panel also included Deuntay Diggs, who is Black and a lieutenant at the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia. He’s also a motivational speaker and known for dancing during an audition on “America’s Got Talent” in 2017.

Also on the panel is Chris Dobbins, who is Caucasian and served in law enforcement with the U.S. Air Force. He had been working as the head of Gaston County’s Department of Health and Human Services in North Carolina when he resigned in June. According to published reports, his registration came after he made a post on Facebook linking racism disparities in housing with health care for Black Americans.

In the post he wrote, “Gaston County DHHS also recognizes that it represents and works within the systems built to benefit some people over others.”

When speaking about the state of policing today, Peete said it’s in flux and confusing. He said things keep happening over and over because people aren’t learning from the mistakes of the past.

Those in law enforcement are under heavy scrutiny and there have been worldwide protests about how black people are treated by police. Those protests were sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in May after a white police officer in Minneapolis used his knee on Floyd’s neck to hold him down for just under less 9 minutes which was sufficient to kill the man.

“We’re right now in a shift where the public is demanding, rightfully so, accountability and transparency and just basic, common rights, dignity, mutual respect and service,” the Montpelier police chief said.

Diggs agreed, saying the glaring issue facing law enforcement is the lack of humanity and respect. He said those that work in law enforcement need to get out into their communities and find out what those communities really want.

Dobbins said we’re living in a time with no middle ground.

“You’re either right or you’re wrong,” he said. “It’s either left or it’s right. It’s either conservative or it’s liberal. … I consistently argue that we’re more alike than we are different, so why shouldn’t we start there? And one of the things I do to try and get to that point is tell me your story. We all make assumptions just based on what we see before we ever know the individual, we ever know anything about them.”

Some looking for police reform have brought up defunding police departments. A few have suggested abolishing police entirely, but most, including residents in Montpelier, want funds taken from law enforcement and redistributed to social services.

While the panelists said police officers these days now have to deal with more issues, like responding to calls about those experiencing mental health problems, they did not think reducing police department budgets was the answer.

Peete said, “You can’t rob Peter to pay Paul to do that.”

The chief said it takes time to get those social services up and running and for them to learn what their “lane” is, so money can’t simply be taken from the police department budget and moved to other services.

He said the public also needs education on the change.

“Who do you call when something happens? Because we haven’t had social service agencies, you’re going to go right to the police department. So everybody’s still going to be calling the police department, but you’ve taken money from that sector,” he said.

Diggs said he’s never heard of a situation where money was taken away from a problem and things got better.

eric.blaisdell @timesargus.com


Covid19
School survey deadline delayed

MONTPELIER — Parents in the Montpelier-Roxbury Public School District will have an extra two days to communicate whether they want their children to be taught face-to-face or online when the school year begins for students on Sept. 8.

Superintendent Libby Bonesteel has extended Monday’s deadline for a district-wide survey to Wednesday and announced a pair of virtual town halls that will be held next week.

Through Thursday, parents of roughly half — 618 — of the pre-K-12 district’s 1,200-plus students, had completed the online survey. The survey is designed to determine how many students plan to return to the traditional classroom when school opens next month and how many want to enroll in one of two remote learning options the district will offer.

District officials are planning to launch a “virtual academy” for K-8 students who can’t or won’t return to in-person instruction. That online option will be run by Mike Berry, the district’s director of curriculum and technology. A separate remote learning option is being developed for high school students and will likely rely on instructors from the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative.

Visit www.mrpsvt.org/covid19-communication where a survey can be found, along with a growing list of frequently asked questions and other pertinent information.

Parents have been advised those who don’t take the time to fill out the survey will forfeit the choice and, for planning purposes, the district will assume their children will attend school in person.

Delaying the survey deadline until Wednesday gives parents of students at Montpelier High School more time to evaluate materials, including a proposed schedule, that were distributed Friday and to attend a virtual town hall forum (https://vtvlc.zoom.us/j/93498311854) that is set for 5 p.m Monday. Hosted by Principal Renée DeVore and Jeff Renaud, director of the VTVLC, the 45-minute forum will provide parents and students an opportunity to learn more about the virtual option planned for the high school.

A separate virtual town hall forum is set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday. See the web page at forms.gle/fJZMbjZjSBsKCw5K7 to submit questions in advance for district administrators.

In order to avoid repetition and expedite the forum those interested in submitting questions are encouraged to first review the list of frequently asked questions that is posted on the district’s website.

david.delcore @timesargus.com


Grace, 10, and Elena Noyes, 11, walk with a herd of young Devons Friday morning at their family’s Wicked Bines Farm in Berlin. The farm sells chickens, turkeys, pork, beef and eggs from their location at the end of Marvin Road.

Follow Their Lead


Susanna Gellert is in her second year as executive artistic director of Weston Playhouse Theatre Company, Vermont’s oldest professional theater.