By Gregory J. Lamoureux
County Courier

RICHFORD: The Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union, announced this morning that their schools would be closing tomorrow, through the Thanksgiving holiday, due to high numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the schools. That gives the students a 10-day break, instead of the five-day break that had been scheduled.

The news came to parents in an email from Superintendent Lynn Cota; one of those parents shared the email with the County Courier.

Word of the closure had yet to be released publicly by the Supervisory Union as of press time. A request for comment from Cota was not immediately returned.

The Supervisory Union encompasses schools in Bakersfield, Berkshire, Enosburg, Montgomery, Richford, and Sheldon.

“Our goal continues to be centered on the health and safety of our students and staff members, and the prioritization of in-person learning for our students,” Cota said in the email to parents. “We hope that we will be able to keep our schools open to in-person learning in the months ahead.  Given the current reality of the high number of COVID 19 cases in Vermont, our county, our towns, and our schools our leaders, teachers, and staff will be working together to prepare for shifts to remote learning if that should become necessary in the weeks and months ahead.”

The closure takes effect on Friday, November 18. Cota said that during the time of the closure, there would be no events happening within the schools, though she later said that there is a vaccine clinic scheduled on Monday in Richford.

“Our staff capacity has reached its breaking point. We do not have enough staff to keep up with the level of contact tracing required with all of these cases.” Cota said in a pre-recorded message to families.

The schools don’t have the staff, including substitute teachers, to keep up with the in-classroom education, test to stay program, and contact tracing according to Cota.

“Many of our schools are struggling to keep up with the high number of student absences,” Cota said. “Many of our schools have gotten close to the 51% attendance threshold required in order to count it as a learning day.”

The State of Vermont changed its rules for schools with this school year. The Agency of Education is no longer counting remote learning days as statutorily required school days.

Cota said the pattern over the past three weeks has made it clear that the school system needs to have their staff prepare for the possibility of a future shift to remote learning if that change is required as the school year progresses.

“It is our hope that we don’t need to switch to remote learning this year,” Cota said, noting that she is trying to be very transparent with the school community.

Cota said the Test to Stay program implemented to counter high case rates could not continue until after the Thanksgiving break. The date that the test to stay program will reopen will be announced at a later date as case counts are known after the Thanksgiving break.

The Supervisory Union has organized three vaccine clinics at schools in the coming weeks. The first clinic is scheduled for November 22nd at the Richford Elementary School, the second is scheduled for December 15th at Berkshire Elementary School, and the third is scheduled for December 16th at Sheldon Elementary School.

Each of those vaccine clinics runs from 9 am to 3 pm, and parents are required to bring their students to the clinics, as well as provide permission for the vaccine if they choose to have their children vaccinated.

The news comes on the same day that Vermont reached a new milestone in the pandemic. Thursday the State of Vermont reported 517 new COVID cases, the second-highest one-day count to date, but the state also reported the 400 death associated with COVID-19 in the Green Mountain State on Thursday.

The most recent spike in cases has amounted to more than 10% of all cases since the beginning of the pandemic have been reported in the past 14 days, as of Thursday morning. In Franklin County that is worse, with 12.8% of cases during the 20 months of the pandemic happening in the past 14 days.

Franklin County has reported a cumulative total of 3,752 cases, with 52 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. 480 of those cases were reported in the past two weeks, with one new death.

As of Thursday morning, there were 62 Vermonters hospitalized with the virus, 13 of those are in Intensive Care Units throughout the state. The state only has about 100 intensive care beds statewide, most of which are taken up at any given time by other medical or trauma patients.

This is an evolving story that will be updated as more information becomes available.