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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
There are many things I could write about this week’s gubernatorial Covid briefing. I could discuss the administration’s persistent cherrypicking of statistics that make it look good. I could talk about Education Secretary Dan French playing another round of three-card monte over the progress of the extremely incomplete Test to Stay program. I could dissect Gov. Phil Scott’s attestation that he’s more worried about the workforce crisis than the Covid pandemic.
I could write about how Scott and his officials insisted they are successfully handling hospital and ICU capacity issues on the same day that VTDigger published a story entitled “Calling for help: Rural hospitals struggle with overwhelmed ICUs, finding beds.”
But I’m confining myself to a single subject.
Back on November 10, in a post called “The Definition of Insanity,” I questioned the governor’s wisdom in sticking to his game plan even though the numbers kept getting worse. One month later, the numbers are even more dismaying. Nevertheless he persists.
So here’s “Definition” part two. Let’s assume that Scott will continue to emphasize vaccines and boosters and reject any tougher measures. If that’s what he wants, then he has to double down on getting the message across. Because it’s clear that he hasn’t managed to persuade enough of the vaccine-cautious to inhibit the virus’ spread.
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.