These days, school boards are not bored

  • Jim O’Brien standing next to “go hawks” sign with mask on at Hopkington Highschool Semptember 15th in the town of Hopkington. He is the Board Chair on the School Comitee. ALLIE ST PETER—Monitor staff

  • Jim O’Brien standing next to “go hawks” sign with mask off at Hopkington Highschool Semptember 15th in the town of Hopkington. He is the Board Chair on the School Comitee. ALLIE ST PETER—Monitor staff

  • School board member Jeff Kelley stands outside of Deerfield Community School on Thursday. ALLIE ST PETER / Monitor Staff

  • School Board member Jeff Kelley sitting outside of Deerfield Community School on September 17, 2020. ALLIE ST PETER—Monitor Staff

  • School Board member Jeff Kelley sitting outside of Deerfield Community School on September 17, 2020. ALLIE ST PETER—Monitor Staff

  • School Board member Jeff Kelley standing outside of Deerfield Community School on September 17, 2020. ALLIE ST PETER—Monitor Staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 9/18/2020 2:21:06 PM
Modified: 9/18/2020 2:20:55 PM

Last March, on the same day Jeff Kelley was sworn in as a member of the Deerfield School Board, his job description changed.

Drastically.

His role, he had always figured before his first term began in the spring, would be limited to the traditional stuff – budgets, curriculums, public relations, etc. But later that Friday, after an SAU 53 meeting, Kelley and his fellow school board members had to think about COVID, not classes. They voted to close.

In other words, Kelley is not a real doctor, but he sort of plays one on TV. At least when the board meetings are videotaped and shown to the public.

“Here I am running my own construction company, and suddenly I’m asked to get involved with public health policy,” Kelley said. “At the end of the day, you take what you are dealt with and try to do the best you can.”

Jim O’Brien, the chairman of the Hopkinton School Board, cut to the bottom line, the hidden fear that’s simultaneously premature to mention yet impossible to ignore.

“I have not been involved in a life-and-death scenario,” O’Brien said. “There was pressure during the economic recession around how to maintain the budget and be fair to employees, but it was not even close to life and death like this.”

A curious thread runs across the Granite State. The one that ties school board members together. Those who cast the final votes to declare school policy. They didn’t necessarily bite off more than they could chew when they won an election to serve in the educational community.

But there’s a lot on their plates.

Kelley and O’Brien listened to their towns’ voters and their superintendents and other administrators, and they cast their votes, unanimously, to use a hybrid model.

Fifty percent of students learn from home, 50 percent at school. Social distancing in classes, with fewer students in each. Masks. An isolation room. A compromise.

They thought about remote-only and heard gripes. They thought about more time in school and heard gripes. Kelley, in fact, deleted his Facebook account due to all the nasty comments.

They spoke openly about their zany, unprecedented experiences, and both couldn’t help but laugh at various times during our discussions.

Beats crying. And, as Kelley noted, “It’s as though it’s so sad that it’s become comical.”

Americans’ home-life scenarios prove that. Couples trying to figure out how to teach their kids or assist with teaching them while working full time and driving to soccer practice and hoping the dishes are done when they get home.

Kelley, who owns Solid Roots Construction, works days. His wife, Shannon, a labor and delivery nurse, works nights. Guess who teaches.

“She manages better than I could,” Kelley said. “I would be more stressed out, but what options do we have? Just give up?”

No. Going above and beyond was needed. Information, advice, direction. A plan. Anyone seen Dr. Fauci?

“Some research happened independently,” O’Brien said. “I reached out to the state, the Department of Health and Human Services has information on a website, information was sent to school boards. This was by far the most amount of time I have spent on an issue ever.”

Politics entered the picture. Or at least policy, or lack thereof. Kelley said he had hoped that Gov. Chris Sununu would launch a plan, a blueprint for how schools should navigate through the pandemic. He said the freedom given to school districts to do as they saw fit was a smokescreen. A way to shirk responsibility.

“It became a sprint to prepare for the fall and we were hoping for help from the state,” Kelley said. “But when word came out, it was so totally disappointing. They sold local control as a positive, but flexibility was not what was needed at that time.

“It’s easy to sell that, and it sounds great, but it’s great spin. We needed a leader at the state or federal level because someone had to make hard decisions and no one wanted to, so they pushed it down to us.”

The school boards in Deerfield and Hopkinton voted to close in March. Kelley hoped the measure would be temporary, short in duration, maybe two weeks. He laughs at that thought today.

In-school learning was over, turning all thoughts, eventually, toward the fall semester. Toward ideas and policies and normalcy.

It’s early, with both school districts and all school districts statewide in full swing after Labor Day Weekend. As of Tuesday, neither Kelley nor O’Brien reported a problem. No positive tests.

Their own kids attend school in their districts. There are rules in place. School officials will be quick with the thermometer and fast to the phone to call parents if a student needs a test.

Logic and science dictate things are safe. But logic and science don’t have children in school.

“The anxiety is around,” O’Brien said. “You do not want to put people in harm’s way, so the biggest anxiety is that the decision I am making can mean the sickness of a student or a member of a family, and that is daunting. Even this hybrid model does not come without risks.”

Then O’Brien pivoted. To his daughter, who’s in fourth grade. She attended an orientation day earlier this month. To get her feet wet and her mask on.

“I said when she got home, ‘How did it go?’ ” O’Brien said. “She said it was amazing and she saw some friends, and when my daughter is coming home from school and saying it’s amazing, I know the agonizing is going to the right place.”


Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.



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