Phil Scott Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., joins Friday’s press conference remotely and speaks as Gov. Phil Scott watches on.

MONTPELIER — Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., joined Gov. Phil Scott on Friday in announcing a state initiative to funnel COVID-19 relief funding into summer and after school programming for youths this year.

“Kids have not had regular schooling … They have not been able to be with their friends,” Sanders said. “… On top of that we have had a longstanding problem in this country in terms of after school activities.”

Under the American Rescue Plan, Sanders said the state will see a “tripling” of its funding for after school programs over the next three years, with an injection of $71 million. In addition, the state will be directing $1.5 million in grant funds for camps and programs.

Here are three key takeaways from Friday’s press conference updating the public on the state’s response to the pandemic:

1. Summer program initiative

Officials said expansions should include additional slots in programs, extended hours or weeks, and programs will be supported to address and accommodate the unique needs of students of all ages. Through this initiative, school districts can also expand both academic and social opportunities for students by partnering with local programs.

Sanders said much of the funding will go to school districts, and encouraged creativity and a focus on affordability for whatever programs school districts decide to pursue.

“Every family in the state of Vermont, regardless of their income, should know that come this summer, there are going to be really great programs for their kids,” Sanders said.

Heather Bouchey, deputy secretary of the Agency of Education, said nonprofits and for-profit organizations, as well as community and private programs will be able to apply for grant funding. Bouchey said information on eligibility and how to apply would be made available soon.

Vermont Afterschool will host an interactive website, launched Friday, that families and providers can use to identify available programs in each area of the state to find the right match for their children. The site will continue to be populated and updated, in real time, as more programs are developed or come online.

For youth interested in apprenticeships and summer jobs, the Vermont Afterschool website also identifies those programs and camps still looking for summertime staff. A parallel effort with the Vermont Department of Labor and the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation offers opportunities to explore careers and find summer jobs.

2. More pharmacies to carry vaccines

Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith reported that, beginning Friday, Shaw’s pharmacies would carry vaccines through the federal pharmacy vaccine distribution program. Rite Aid and Price Chopper pharmacies will also begin carrying vaccines starting Monday.

The additional pharmacies coincide with the next age group becoming eligible for vaccination. Starting Monday at 8:15 a.m., Vermonters age 30 and older will become eligible.

Also beginning Monday, federal financial assistance will become available for families who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. According to Smith, families who’ve lost a loved one can qualify for up to $9,000 in reimbursement, while families who’ve lost more than one loved one can qualify for up to $35,000.

3. Step 1 of reopening plan begins

Beginning Friday, the first step of the Vermont Forward plan started, reducing the quarantine requirement for cross-state travel and instead mandating a negative test three days after returning to the state for Vermonters, and three days prior to arrival for out-of-state visitors.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people not travel unless they have been fully vaccinated.

The first phase also allows a number of businesses to open using what the state deems “universal guidance,” a standard set of public health guidelines that aren’t specific to a certain business sector.

However, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine noted that cases remain high among younger Vermonters. Following news Tuesday that the P1 variant of COVID-19 was detected — raising the number of variants detected in Vermont to three — Levine elaborated Friday, stating that the case was a New Hampshire resident who was tested in Vermont.

“As with all the variants, we should assume this means the variant is circulating in our state, as the virus knows no bounds,” he said. “… This pandemic is not yet over. We can’t let the virus spread faster than we can get Vermonters vaccinated.”

Citing CDC data, Levine urged Vermonters to continue wearing masks, as the virus is primarily transmitted aerially as opposed to touching surfaces, which has a roughly one in 10,000 risk of contraction.

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