Category Archives: Education

Vermont’s “Test to Stay” Program is Late, Incomplete, and Not Nearly as Effective as It Could Be

When listening to Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly Covid briefings, it’s important to read between the lines. That’s because the bad news is concealed — sometimes cleverly, sometimes incompetently — in carefully-crafted statements that seem like good news but really aren’t.

Case in point: Education Secretary Dan French’s weekly foray into rhetorical misdirection concerning Vermont’s Test to Stay program, in which students who might be at risk are tested upon arrival at school. If they’re negative, they get to stay.

That is, if your school is actually offering the program. We’re three full months into the school year now, and Test to Stay remains very much a work in progress. If French were graded on his performance, he’d get an “Incomplete” and an admonishment to apply himself if he wants to pass.

Tuesday afternoon, French ambled to the lectern, removed his mask, and told us that 43 school districts — 73% of total districts — are enrolled in Test to Stay.

Note the word “enrolled.” They’ve signed up, and that’s all we know. French offered no numbers on how many schools are actively engaged in TTS. Those enrolled districts, he said, have either started testing or are awaiting supplies. Again, no breakdown was offered.

A reminder that the Scott administration didn’t launch TTS until after the beginning of the school year. It’s been playing catch-up ever since.

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Will the Witness For Synthetic Turf Please Take the Stand?

Last month I brought you news of Michael Shively, professional “expert” on sex trafficking and staunch foe of decriminalizing sex work. He took the mic at Burlington and Montpelier City Council meetings, delivered his spiel, and got quite a bit of coverage in the media. More than he deserved. His credentials went unquestioned in press coverage. In truth, he represents an organization that sprung out of the religious right and has fought not only sex trafficking but also pornography, sex toys and birth control.

Well, now we’ve got another professional expert whose credentials should not be accepted at face value. Meet Laura Green, PhD., who has represented the synthetic turf industry and developers of synthetic turf athletic fields on numerous occasions. Her take is that synthetic turf is not at all harmful. It’s just a bunch of inert ingredients, nothing to see here, please move along.

Green does have solid credentials in the field of toxicology, but she has been a paid expert on only one side of the synthetic turf issue. Many experts and environmentalists do not agree with her view. Truth is, the necessary research on the safety of turf has yet to be done. It’s an open question.

Green recently paid a digital visit to Vermont, specifically the board of Mount Anthony Union High School down Bennington way. The board has proposed covering a dilapidated field with synthetic turf. Green spoke at a special meeting about the plan on October 25. Her expertise was taken pretty much at face value by trustees and the local press. (The Bennington Banner both-sidesed the hearing, which is always the shortest route to fake objectivity.)

Before proceeding any further, I should note that the plan has been derailed, at least for now. On November 3 district voters rejected the proposal, most likely over its cost. School officials are deciding what to do next; the field needs attention one way or another. Synthetic turf remains an option.

Back to the witness for Big Turf.

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And One of the Elders Saith Unto Me, Veep Not

It’s only fitting that on the day when Gov. Phil Scott basically gave in on emergency housing for the homeless, ending a pointless months-long policy debate, we’ve got a fresh crop of stupidity and/or obtuseness in the public sphere to honor. Today’s honorees include a publisher of anti=vax nonsense suing a U.S. Senator… a restaurant telling employees to show up for work if they’re sick… another failure of the law enforcement system to take action against hate speech… and a real-life lesson in How To Do It Right, sent to the attention of the Vermont Principals’ Association.

First up, the Desperate Times Call for Ludicrous Lawsuits Award, which goes to Chelsea Green Publishing and its cofounder Margo Baldwin. The Vermont publisher, once best known for top-quality environmental and DIY books, is now deep into the Covid conspiracy shit. Now, CG has filed suit against Sen. Elizabeth Warren for allegedly trying to suppress its free speech rights.

Warren’s offense? She wrote to Amazon.com urging them to review its search algorithms so that conspiratorialist nonsense wouldn’t get so many hits. This, per Baldwin, amounts to “the government… trying to censor speech and ban books.”

Well. First, a Senator is influential, but Warren cannot act on behalf of the government and she has no authority over Amazon’s internal policies. The suit itself is its own evidence for a Veepie; it admits that plaintiffs have no proof that Warren had any effect on Amazon’s search algorithms. Quite the contrary, one of CG’s books is the No. 1 bestseller in one Amazon category. If Amazon has rejiggered its algorithms, there’s no sign it’s had any effect on Chelsea Green’s sales.

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Fear Not, My Friends, the VPA Is On the Case

Oh boy, we’ve had another incident of abuse and taunting at a high school sports event.

According to the Morrisville News & Citizen, last week’s girls’ soccer playoff game between Lamoille Union High School and Missisquoi Union High School was rife with abuse from the home Missisquoi crowd. They reportedly showered the Lamoille team with “repeated harassment, sexualization and debasement” throughout the match, according to a statement from Lamoille administration. More from the statement:

“Those gathered on the sidelines directed their comments at the players’ weight, chest sizes and disparaging their physical appearances. In addition, other players reported repeated comments about their families and parents. The level of spectator comments exceeded typical razzing of visiting players and support of their home team.”

It gets worse. Lamoille says the game officials did nothing to stop the abuse, which left some players asking to be taken out of the game or switched to positions away from the home crowd. The officials said the abuse wasn’t “mean enough” to warrant action.

These are the same officials who read the newly-minted Vermont Principals’ Association code of behavior before the match began. So we know exactly what that’s worth.

It shouldn’t surprise you that VPA chief Jay Nichols completely failed to step up to the situation.

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The VPA Engages in Some Emergency Ass-Covering

Funny thing. A couple weeks ago Jay Nichols, head of the Vermont Principals Association, didn’t seem terribly concerned about reports of racist language at a Winooski/Enosburg high school soccer game. Nichols said the VPA might investigate if it received information about such an incident, but for now the Enosburg district was handling it. He gave no indication that the VPA would take an active role.

Since then, we’ve heard of at least two other incidents of hate speech at high school games.

And now, he’s announced a list of (bland and unconvincing) actions in response to the incidents. In doing so, he said “We have plenty of racism and sexism and stuff like that happen every single day.”

Huh.

Two things. First, “stuff like that”? Really?

Second, if this “stuff” happens every single day, why in Hell didn’t the VPA have a process before now?

That statement is bad enough. But when you actually read the list of actions, it’s clear that this is nothing more than a beleaguered organization trying to cover its ass while actually doing as little as possible.

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Scott Preaches ‘Personal Responsibility,’ Refuses to Accept Any

Even by the usual dismal standards, this was a doozy of a weekly briefing. Gov. Phil Scott acknowledged that his policies haven’t been effective against the Delta variant, he had no idea why, yet he would keep doing the same things he’s been doing and just hope it starts to work. Definition of insanity, anyone?

His opening remarks were heavy on “personal responsibility,” which sounds like good old Vermont plain talk. But the underlying message is that it’s our fault his policies haven’t worked. If only we’d all take personal responsibility, everything would be just fine and his genius would be revealed for all to see.

Pushing vaccination was the sum-total of his policy. Vaccines and boosters. Boosters and vaccines. No hint of a fallback policy if we never achieve herd immunity because even in Vermont, some people are anti-vaxxers or Covid skeptics and some will never become eligible. Good public policy doesn’t depend on every single person being personally responsible; it tries to make up for and/or rein in our weaknesses and misbehaviors. I mean, if everyone took personal responsibility, we wouldn’t need prisons or police. Or laws.

That’s why vaccination plus a sensible masking policy has worked so much better than vaccination alone. It would work here too, but Scott is too stubborn and/or beholden to business interests to even consider any mask mandates or limits on travel or public gatherings.

His administration proudly trumpets the percentage of eligible Vermonters who’ve gotten at least one vaccine shot. It’s now an impressive 88.9%. Which obscures the fact that the percentage of all Vermonters with at least one jab is more like 70%. You never, ever hear that figure at the Tuesday pressers.

In fact, a recent tweet from Scott’s official account completely obliterated that key difference:

That, children, is what we in the business call “a lie.”

Meanwhile, take a gander at this map from the New York Times.

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The Autumn of Phil’s Discontent

Is this the worst moment in Gov. Phil Scott’s nearly five years in office? I’d have to say yes. Now, there haven’t been that many bad moments. Maybe the time he vetoed not one but two state budgets and nearly triggered a government shutdown. But that turned out to be a blip on the radar.

This? This could be the first time he suffers real political damage. He’s taking simultaneous hits on three fronts: The continuing Covid surge, his administration’s erratic Covid policy in the schools, and yet another retreat on the emergency housing program. In all three cases, he looks less like a compassionate moderate and more like a stubborn conservative.

I’m not saying he’s vulnerable in 2022. He isn’t yet, but the bloom is coming off the rose.

He’s had to abandon his optimism on the Delta variant and admit he doesn’t know what’s happening. Our seven-day rolling average of new cases is still near record highs, and hospitalizations, deaths, and test positivity rate are all distressingly high. Still, Scott continues to signal no change in policy. The longer he does so, the more embarrassing his inevitable comedown will be. Unless he gets lucky and the Delta variant goes away.

The school situation is not getting better anytime soon. The “test to stay” program is still being rolled out more than six weeks into the school year. The administration has touted the program’s success in Massachusetts, but there’s a big difference. In Massachusetts, the program was implemented in late July. There was time for planning and adjustment before the doors opened to students. Up here, Education Secretary Dan French is like an auto mechanic working on a car while it’s being driven.

Actually, since he hasn’t offered any resources to schools, it’s more like he’s in the passenger seat telling the driver to work on the engine while the car is in motion.

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Scott to Vermont: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

After weeks of staunchly denying that there was a monster in the attic, the tactic is finally becoming untenable. The pounding, stomping and grunting is just too loud to ignore. So now we’ve switched to “Yes, there’s a monster and we don’t know what his intentions are, but we think it will go away on its own. No need to do anything.”

Yeah, the Scott administration’s carefully posed optimism was on short supply in the latest gubernatorial Covid briefing. After several days of case counts between 200 and 300, a rising test positivity rate, dozens of hospitalizations and a high death count, Gov. Phil Scott and his top officials have retreated from their Happy Place.

Still, despite the bad numbers and failed projections, he still insists that there’s no need for any additional action. It’s all about the vaccine, baby. Get your shots and you’ll be fine.

Well, maybe. At least you’ll be less likely to end up in a hospital or a grave.

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Dan French, Purposeful Cipher

Education Secretary Dan French is not the most inspiring sort of leader. If anything, he’s kind of just there. His facial expression and vocal affect are persistently flat. He tends to say nothing with a maximum amount of verbal camouflage. When he’s reading a prepared statement, his eyes rarely stray from the page. And when they do stray, it’s a brief upward glance and then right back down.

Which probably makes him the perfect education secretary for Gov. Phil Scott, who’s also fond of laying down large swaths of verbal camouflage and, well, doesn’t seem to care that much about the public schools except they should somehow operate more cheaply.

In the past couple weeks, French’s persona has not served him well in the public sphere. Although again, his boss is probably just fine with his performance.

At the October 5 Covid briefing, French mentioned in passing that he’d made a visit to the Canaan school district the previous day. It only occurred to me later that (a) Canaan is the only district in Vermont without a mask mandate and (b) Canaan is French’s old stomping grounds. It was there he rose from teacher to superintendent before moving on to bigger things.

That Canaan meeting was apparently not recorded. Or if it was, the recording has not been made available. That’s a shame, because I’d really like to know what he said about the advisability of masking.

Especially since, as someone who viewed the meeting told me, French did not wear a mask himself.

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Gov Sends Thoughts, Prayers to Public Schools

“It’s unfortunate, the number of deaths,” he said. Yes, he did.

If the Scott administration were devising a pandemic strategy meant to put maximum pressure on our schools, it couldn’t do much better than this. At his weekly Covid presser, Gov. Phil Scott made it clear that he expects school officials to do everything they can to keep kids in the classroom, but they’re on their own for staffing an ever-evolving, incomplete regimen of Covid testing.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

After brief statements from Scott and others, including the customary parade of carefully curated statistics from Finance Commissioner and CovidMeister Michael Pieciak, Education Secretary Dan French took to the podium and made it clear that the administration expected school systems to “maximize in-person learning” by any means necessary. His latest brainfart, “test to stay,” is a regimen of testing done at the beginning of the school day. Students who test negative can stay in class.

This policy, which is still being rolled out more than a month into the school year, puts the onus on school staff to conduct quick tests first thing in the morning. As for how the understaffed and overstressed schools should handle the additional work, French said, “I expect schools will add staff or reassign existing staff.”

But don’t think the state will kick in a single damn dime to cover the cost. French helpfully suggested that the schools use federal Covid relief funds to pay the freight. “Funding shouldn’t be the problem,” he said. I wonder how many districts have gobs of uncommitted federal dollars sloshing around right now.

But wait, it gets worse!

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