Tag Archives: Dan French

Playing Politics With Mental Health

Acting Human Services Secretary and Effusive Wireless Advocate Jenney Samuelson

As our political leaders, state and national, try to reassure us that the post-pandemic future is now, one of their favorite rhetorical devices is mental health. The danger to our physical health is nothing compared to the toll of isolation, fear, absence of normal activity, and apparently how facemasks cut off blood flow to the brain. Our leaders aren’t simply pushing us back to the assembly line of work and consumerism; they are the good guys, protecting us from Covid’s frightful toll on mental health.

Take, for example, Edjamacation Secretary Dan French implying that those of us still worried about the pandemic are pushing our kids into the abyss. At this week’s Gubernatorial Agenda Promotion Event, he talked of reducing the anxiety level in schools by getting everything back to normal. In other words, if you’re still concerned about prevention, if you’re constantly badgering kids to wash up or stay home if they’re sick or — horrors — force them to wear a mask or do so yourself, you’re complicit in fostering a pandemic of mental illness.

Nowhere in any of this do we hear about the mental and emotional toll of living with the pandemic, of the continuing vigilance that many of us feel compelled to maintain even as French and Gov. Phil Scott pretend that those stresses don’t exist.

Masking is a two-way street. I wear a mask in public spaces, but it’s much less effective if other people are unmasked. Meanwhile, our leaders are practically tearing the masks off our faces. Oh well, the concerns of marginal Vermonters like the old, the immunocompromised, the disabled, and anyone at elevated risk are absent from the administration’s equation.

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Welcome to The Governor’s Weekly Agenda Promotion Event

These things used to be weekly updates on the Covid-19 pandemic but, as of today, that’s no longer the case.

For the second week in a row, Gov. Phil Scott opened the event by declaring he had nothing to say about the pandemic. Instead, he used his platform to tout an administration policy priority. And the first administration official who followed Scott the lectern wasn’t Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine or Virus Vaticinator Michael Pieciak or Education Secretary Dan French.

No, it was the person pictured above: Public Service Commissioner June Tierney.

Needless to say, she didn’t talk about Covid. She talked about Scott’s plan to enhance mobile phone service by spending $51 million on new cell towers.

Right off the bat, we get two big tells that the state of the pandemic is no longer the chief subject.

Then came Strike Three. WCAX’s Calvin Cutler wanted to ask about the medical monitoring bill making its way through the Legislature, so he opened by noting that his question was “off topic.”

Scott’s response? “It’s not off topic for our weekly press briefings.”

That’s a new, and I’d say deliberate, change on the governor’s part.

So, per Scott himself, we no longer have weekly Covid briefings. We have weekly administration Happy Hours broadcast live across the state. In an election year, it begins to look less like public information and more like free publicity.

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Never Miss a Chance to Hit Your Talking Points, No Matter How Awkward the Context

Gov. Phil Scott used the occasion of his weekly Covid briefing — well, customarily weekly; he’s missed two of the last three weeks — to do a little bragging. The Omicron numbers are starting to trend downward and Scott was quick to take credit, although he also warned it was too soon for a victory lap.

That’s all fine. Normal for a politician. But on a couple of occasions, the governor took it uncomfortably close to the realm of tastelessness.

First, a reporter asked him to reflect on Vermont’s death toll passing the 500 milestone. He said the right words, most of them, although in an oddly dispassionate tone; but he couldn’t resist referring — not once, but twice — to the state’s relatively low death toll. In other words, he took a solemn moment as a pretext for delivering a political talking point. And later on, he talked of keeping the death rate on the low side in spite of Vermont’s aging population. Yeah, I know, us Olds are so inconvenient.

Details and a few other notes… after the jump.

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Phil Scott Shows His Educational True Colors

The above was burped out this morning by “National School Choice Week,” an organization that claims to support education but doesn’t know how to spell Phil Scott’s first name. For the record, it’s one-L, as in Ogden Nash’s lama.

“National School Choice Week” is one of those innocuous-sounding labels adopted by a right-wing organization to obscure its true nature. Here’s how they themselves describe what they stand for:

School choice means giving parents access to the best K-12 education options for their children. These options include traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, online academies, and homeschooling.

Of course, parents already have access to all these options. What NCSW wants is for public dollars to follow every student no matter where they are educated, including institutions that practice various forms of discrimination and religious indoctrination. Such a program inevitably drains resources away from the public school system, which is one of the jewels of American government.

And yes indeed, Scott did issue a proclamation in support of NCSW. It’s couched in the usual language about improving the quality of education and accountability and parental authority. But look: Scott is endorsing a cause put forward by the enemies of public education on the right. That should worry anyone in Vermont who supports a strong system of public schools.

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It’s Friday! Time for the Weekly Dan French Disaster!

One week ago I referred to Education Secretary Dan French as “the Inspector Clouseau of the Scott cabinet.” Today, on advice from our crack legal team, I am unreservedly apologizing to the memory of the good Inspector, his descendants, and especially his lawyered-up estate. Because good God, the man is starting to make Clouseau look like a paragon of efficiency and organization.

The past two Fridays brought us (1) a sudden and complete reversal in school Covid policy, abandoning contact tracing and Test to Stay in favor of A Policy Yet To Be Named, and (2) the unveiling of said policy, “test at home,” in which parents would do the testing instead of school staff.

And only a few days later, as VTDigger reports, we learn that the schools don’t have anywhere near enough test kits to actually conduct “test at home.” Yep, French’s latest policy was a disaster from conception to unveiling to pratfall.

Got a question. How the blue Hell did French’s agency not realize that tests would run out? School officials realized it within a couple of days.

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Dan French Wants You to Know He’s Smarter Than You

Gov. Phil Scott is the master of leavening otherwise innocuous statements with little passive-aggressive cracks, such as his couching any opposition to his Wise PoliciesTM as “playing politics.” Well, Education Secretary Dan French, the Inspector Clouseau of the Scott cabinet, has listened and learned at the feet of his master.

You see, French buried a lovely nugget of condescension in his second consecutive Friday newsdump of fresh guidance for the public schools. Not only has he shifted state policy away from in-school testing and contact tracing; now he’s actively dissuading school officials from pursuing more stringent measures.

In his Friday email to the schools, French told them “to avoid the temptation to build additional processes.”

Temptation?

Excuse me?

What he’s saying, I guess, is that school officials have to be cautioned away from the shiny bauble of additional work. Yes, the sirens of contact tracing and Test to Stay may be singing prettily from the rocky shore, but local officials need to tie themselves to the mast and sail on by the opportunity to take on a workload that was killing them throughout the fall semester.

Does he know how condescending this sounds? Probably not, given his customary level of obtuseness.

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Phil Scott Really Hates to Admit He Might Be Wrong

This was the facial expression Gov. Phil Scott pulled when he was asked if his administration got “caught with your pants down” by the Omicron variant. Yeah, he doesn’t like admitting he may have been wrong and he hates it when someone calls him on it. Maybe we can stop with the “nice guy” stuff, please?

Backing up for a sec. In a Friday newsdump at the end of last week, Education Secretary Dan French announced a complete change in Covid-19 policy for the public schools. At the time, I wrote: “There’s only one good thing about this fiasco. It’s the first time anyone in the Scott administration has admitted that their policies weren’t working.”

Well, at his Tuesday Covid briefing, the governor came out swinging against the idea that his now-inoperative school policies didn’t work.

“The process we’ve been using with school nurses acting as contact tracers was effective before Omicron,” he said in his opening statement, “but it no longer is as effective as it once was.”

I’d like to hear him say that to the face of any school nurse in Vermont. They, and other school staff, were overwhelmed by the workload involved in contact tracing and Test to Stay*. It was unsustainable, and the administration did nothing to help. That’s why the Agency of Education struggled throughout the fall semester to get school districts to sign up for Test to Stay. It was more effective than, say, doing nothing at all, but it never came close to being effective.

*Speaking of which, Scott announced that child care facilities will now be able to sign up for Test to Stay. Did anyone else notice the contradiction? “Test to Stay” is now ineffective in the schools, but it’s the latest thing for child care? Huh.

Hell, he couldn’t even bring himself to admit that the policy failed to meet the test of the Omicron variant. All he said was the policy was “no longer as effective as it once was.”

Which brings us to the pants question.

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There’s Only One Good Thing About This

In the Friday newsdump of all Friday newsdumps, Education Secretary Dan French, seen above realizing he forgot to wear pants to the office, has thrown his school Covid policies into the dumpster and promised something new and better… sometime next week.

Holy fucking hell.

In a memo sent to school officials (and quickly leaked to the media), French advised them to stop trying to do contact tracing and PCR surveillance testing because both strategies are ineffective against the impressively virulent Omicron strain. He wrote of an “imminent policy shift,” so after a disastrous first week of the winter semester, our schools will sail blithely into week 2 with no policies in place whatsoever.

Also, the AOE is now trying to supply schools with enough test kits for all their students. Seven Days, which first broke the story, reports that it’s “unclear how many kits each school will get and whether the state already has them stockpiled.”

Yeah, AOE policy is known for its lack of clarity. And substance.

This isn’t the first time French has failed to foresee the eminently foreseeable. The Delta variant was a known threat by midsummer, but AOE didn’t devise new testing and screening policies until several weeks into the school year. And the crown jewel of the strategy — Test to Stay — has had a slow and trouble-plagued rollout because the schools lacked the resources to carry it out and the state offered zero help.

And now he’s done it again with Omicron.

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The Metamorphosis of “Test to Stay”

Lately, Education Secretary Dan French has been playing a game of three-card monte with the “Test to Stay” program for the public schools. Each week, he’s cited a different set of statistics. This makes it almost impossible to track the real progress of the program, which has very slowly rolled out through the fall semester as school officials and staff struggled to find the necessary time and resources. And the state did little or nothing to help.

Do you recall when French said the state had contracted with a temp agency to provide additional staff for districts to conduct TTS? We got the initial announcement, and then we never heard boo about it again. Did anyone actually get a temp staffer? We don’t know, but if it had been successful and allowed more districts to do TTS, you can bet we would have heard about it.

This week, French announced the latest change in his agency’s ever-shifting, always-belated Covid policy. He’s still using the name “Test to Stay,” but it’s becoming a very different program starting immediately.

No longer will overburdened school staff be tasked with Covid testing first thing every day. Instead, as French said on Tuesday, “schools will become a distribution point of antigen test for students and their families, not administrators of a testing program.”

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Phil’s Funny Figgers Factory

Well, if the governor is spouting fake optimism and citing carefully curated statistics, it must be Tuesday. This week, Gov. Phil Scott and his team had to admit that the Omicron variant is about to hit Vermont just as the holidays arrive. The combination will almost certainly trigger another several weeks of high case counts — higher than ever before — and overburdened health care workers.

So, in the face of all that bad news, Scott kicked off the presser by reminding us all of how much better off we are now than in December 2020 thanks to his administration’s wise policymaking and the innate goodness of Vermonters, who can be trusted to Do The Right Thing without any orders from above.

Sure, if you make the comparison right there. No one would dispute that Scott handled the first 15-odd months of the pandemic very well. But his convenient comparison elides the fact that his handling of the Delta variant has been woefully bad. His administration has consistently underestimated the impact of Delta, which has meant policies that have proved inadequate to the task or too little, too late.

There was hardly any mention of last week’s hot statistic: Scott’s claim that only 5% of adult Vermonters are unvaccinated. I’ve previously documented some of the holes in that figure; Middlebury College physicist Eilat Glikman exposed another one on Twitter:

I used the numbers on the Vermont vaccine dashboard to compute the actual percentage of adults >18yo who are vaccinated in the state. The answer is 81% not 95%.

On Monday morning, I emailed Health Department spokesman Ben Truman asking for an explanation of how the dashboard percentages were calculated and what figure they are using for the population of Vermont. I have yet to receive an answer. (Finance Commissioner and Chief Number Cruncher Michael Pieciak may have dropped a hint; he off-handedly referred to Vermont’s population as around 630,000. The latest Census count is 643,000.)

The magic number of 5% got no mention in the administration’s extensive opening remarks. It did arise during the Q&A, when a reporter brought up (in broad terms) the problems with it. Scott responded with an aggressive defense of his favorite statistic. Unfortunately, the reporter didn’t arm himself with enough facts to question Scott’s bold-faced assertiveness. Nor did he or anyone else query Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine on the public health usefulness of that figure: How valuable, in terms of measuring our Covid resistance, is it to count only those over 18? Why count those who’ve received as little as a single dose, when the administration is urging everyone to get the full course plus a booster? How much protection does a single dose offer?

No answers to any of that. No reporter armed themselves with the information necessary to effectively query the administration.

There were, as usual, more statistical follies on offer.

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