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.
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.”
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.
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.