Schools plan rapid return

  • First lady Jill Biden visits the Christa McAuliffe School in Concord, N.H., Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool) Susan Walsh

  • The Christa McAuliffe School is seen in Concord on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor Staff
Published: 4/6/2021 5:24:13 PM

Area districts are working quickly to reopen schools in less than two weeks, in compliance with the deadline set by Governor Chris Sununu.

The state-ordered deadline to return to in-person instruction five days a week falls before April vacation, earlier than most districts were planning to reopen, which has accelerated the planning for everything from classroom layouts to lesson plans.

“I understand that there’s a challenge and a struggle in doing this, and I think it’s one more thing that is at the end of a long list of ‘one more things’ that we have to do, and we have to change, and we have to be resilient about,” John Stark School Board chair Zach Lawson said at a meeting Monday. “It is very cut and dry, it is very clear, we must make these accommodations, we must make this happen and so we are going to do this to the best of our ability.”

In Concord, where school administrators had been planning to reopen on May 3, after April vacation, the school board voted 7-2 Monday to follow the new state-required deadline.

“Obviously the April 1 governor’s order certainly overrode every decision we made,” interim superintendent Kathleen Murphy told the board Monday. “But our New Hampshire data shows that our schools are low-risk environments for transmitting COVID-19.”

In her recommendation for reopening on the new date, Murphy cited New Hampshire data showing few cases of transmission in schools, spring weather that can allow for open windows and outdoor classes, and the timeline of New Hampshire’s vaccine rollout where teachers have been eligible since March 12, and students ages 16 and older since April 2.

Murphy said she learned in meetings with the education commissioner that school districts that fail to reopen by April 19 will be considered “out of compliance,” with the state, although districts can request waivers for certain situations, like if they can’t maintain safe distancing with all students in buildings.

Concord School Board members briefly debated whether district administrators should consider asking the Department of Education for a waiver, to give them more time to plan for reopening. Board members Gina Cannon and Barb Higgins voted against reopening April 19, saying the district should ask for a waiver, but were overruled by the rest of the board.

Many districts are grappling with the issue of how to maintain safe social distancing once all students are back in the buildings. In March, the CDC reduced its recommended distancing requirements from 6 feet to 3 feet for K-12 schools, but in small school buildings, even the reduced distance may not be manageable.

In Hopkinton, the School Board has revised a memorandum of understanding that had been set with the teacher and educational support staff unions at the start of the year, requiring 6-foot distancing in buildings. The new memo reflects 3-feet distancing when possible, although board members acknowledged at an April 1 meeting that it may not always be possible.

“Our school buildings cannot be changed. We cannot move walls, unfortunately,” school board member Andrea Folsom said at the meeting. “It’s something that the community really needs to understand as well, that we’re not guaranteeing that your child will always remain 3 feet away from other children, and that there will be instances where they will be closer together than 3 feet.”

In Concord, schools will be following 3-foot distancing except during mealtimes, when the 6-foot distancing requirement will remain while students remove their masks to eat.

“The desks and the tables and the positions of the tables and/or desks, we are using a shoulder-to-shoulder 3 feet, we all have sticks to measure that in the classrooms,” Murphy said. “In the cafeteria, the snack or the breakfast has to be 6 feet because their masks are down.”

Under Sununu’s mandate, districts can continue to offer remote-only options for students who don’t want to be in person. In Concord, Murphy says students currently in hybrid should stay in person and students currently in the remote model should stay remote until the end of the year, so they remain with the same teachers. Murphy says the district is trying to keep teachers paired with their same class groups as much as possible, to maintain consistency for students.

Murphy said that teachers can continue to be remote if they have medical, disability or family and medical leave reasons, as is school policy.

In Hopkinton, superintendent Steve Chamberlin told the school board that class rearrangements won’t be much of an issue for the middle and high school, but it may be a factor in the elementary schools, particularly if more students decide to pivot to remote learning.

“At the secondary level it’s a more seamless adjustment. At the elementary school, how we do the remote option if there is an influx is something we are going to have to work through,” Chamberlin said. “And it doesn’t look like we have all that much time to work through that.”

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