Appeared in VTDigger Wednesday, January 12, 2022

This commentary is by Shabnam Nolan, executive director of the King Street Center; Christine Lloyd-Newberry, executive director of the Sara M. Holbrook Community Center; and Tanya Benosky, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Burlington.

As we find ourselves in another phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are faced with the reality that many families in our state, and the after-school programs serving them — namely those who are Black, Indigeneous and people of color (BIPOC), low-income, and/or come from our immigrant and refugee communities — could be left behind in the new guidance being rolled out.

On Jan. 6, Gov. Scott  announced a plan to send 500,000 free rapid tests to Vermonters. This was followed by an announcement on Friday by Education Secretary Dan French that a major policy shift was coming this week, which would halt contact tracing and put the burden of testing onto families.

This latter strategy is expected to ease pressure on local schools, which have been, without question, heavily burdened over the last two years.

According to the Vermont Department of Health, as of Nov. 19, 2021, BIPOC Vermonters are vaccinated against Covid at lower rates than their white counterparts. BIPOC children ages 5-11, especially those in Chittenden, Rutland and Washington counties, are the least likely to be vaccinated of any age group, and thus the most at risk of negative impact from Covid-19.

It is this population of children — low-income BIPOC kids from immigrant and refugee families in Chittenden County — that King Street Center, Boys and Girls Club of Burlington, Sara M. Holbrook Community Center, and the Greater Burlington YMCA serve every day in their early education and K-12 after-school programs. Like schools, we are faced with staff shortages and positive cases among our youth. Our small teams were suddenly tasked with contact tracing.

For the majority of children, this required us to either translate written guidance we had to develop ourselves into their family’s dominant language, or get on the phone with them and a translator to explain what to do now that their child was a close contact. Many families we spoke to were confused and scared — asking questions like, why are our policies different from school and why do their children need to also stay home from school.

The families we serve were not the families who were able to access rapid tests distributed during the winter break, which required many Vermonters across the state to register online in English and up to an hour to pick up their tests. It has only been thanks to our personal relationships in the Burlington community that some of us were fortunate enough to get rapid tests to families we had to contact-trace last week.

We recognize that reaching the families our organizations serve and getting both vaccines and rapid tests into communities can be a daunting task at the state level, and we appreciate the steps the state has taken to support our families in the past two years. That is why looking to after-school programs like ours as a resource is so critical to connecting with these communities.

We see children and families every school day and we support them when schools are closed. We are trusted messengers in these communities. We know the families and they know us.

And as the forthcoming guidance stands, after-school programs are left with two choices: Either we continue to do contact tracing ourselves or we put the burden on families. Both options leave after-school programs like ours desperately searching for rapid tests on our own, and neither are sustainable for our programs or the families we serve.

Thankfully, it isn’t too late to center the communities most at risk of harm in this current wave of Covid-19 and include after-school programs as distribution sites for rapid tests.

As the new guidance is announced and a distribution plan for rapid tests is put into place this week, we hope the administration will reach out to organizations like ours and see us as a resource for connecting with families and getting rapid tests to those who often cannot get them through other means.