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District officials, school board to meet Monday to discuss reopening guidelines

Monitor staff
Published: 7/29/2021 4:05:07 PM

A proposal to require masks in schools this fall is on the table in Concord, as district officials work to finalize a back-to-school plan that balances safety with local transmission and vaccination rates and of course, the full range of parent concerns.

The Concord School Board plans to hold a public hearing on the district’s proposed back-to-school plan at its meeting Aug 2. The current proposal, discussed by the School Board’s Instructional Committee on Monday, includes fully in-person learning and a recommendation to require masks for everyone indoors.

Assistant Superintendent Donna Palley said the district will not offer remote learning unless COVID-19 safety requires it, although there will be a few core classes with a remote option at the high school level. Those that want fully remote learning can enroll in the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS). Right now, based on a June survey, there are about 30 Concord students across all grade levels who indicated an interest in continuing with remote learning.

“We feel like if it’s needed – because of transmission, because of cases, operational issues – that we will be able to pivot back to that,” Palley said Monday. “Our teachers really learned how to do it well and we feel like we have the capacity for it. But our priority right now is in-person learning.”

The Instructional Committee of the School Board is recommending that the full board require masks for everyone indoors in the fall, until the city of Concord’s vaccination rate reaches 70% (the minimum to achieve herd immunity), or until the COVID-19 vaccine is approved for elementary-aged children and a sufficient period of time has passed to allow families to vaccinate their children if they want to. Currently, Concord’s vaccination rate is around 56%, and COVID vaccines are not yet approved for children under 12.

Statewide, New Hampshire is currently averaging 67.7 COVID-19 cases per week, more than twice the 30-case-per-week average in August 2020, when the School Board voted to begin the school year remotely. This summer, masks have been optional both indoors and outdoors in Concord school buildings.

The conversation in the Instructional Committee Monday echoed similar mask debates that have been happening across the state since last year.

“My belief right now is that we need to start the school year wearing masks, it doesn’t matter what grade you’re in, what you’ve had for vaccines or not,” said Barb Higgins, School Board member and Instructional Committee chairwoman. “I feel like safety is the best measure, and a mask is an easy thing to put on and take off.”

Board member Brenda Hastings disagreed.

“I like giving people a choice. I don’t like taking away choices from people,” Hastings said. “Right now, I don’t know that I would be comfortable making a blanket statement for September, in July.”

In preparing for the mask decision, district officials are weighing perspectives from several sources. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends masks be worn in schools, while New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services says schools with low levels of community transmission can choose to go without masks.

Superintendent Kathleen Murphy has expressed her support for the Instructional Committee’s recommendation.

“I think we should wear masks when we return to school, until such time that our students are vaccinated,” Murphy told board members at Monday’s meeting. “We have no idea how many students at the middle school or high school have been vaccinated, I would rather start out in a more cautious way until we feel comfortable with the numbers and the vaccination rates.”

The debate will continue Aug. 2 over whether masks should be required at Rundlett Middle School and Concord High School, where most students are over age 12 and have been eligible for the COVID vaccine since May. The district will likely have to require masks on school buses, in accordance with a February order from the CDC that requires masking on all public transportation.

The full school board will discuss the issue further at its meeting Aug. 2, at 7 p.m., and hear input from members of the public.

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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