Democrats add school reopening controversy to campaign trail

  • FILE - In this Feb. 10, 2020, file photo New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu speaks at a Cops for Trump rally in Portsmouth, N.H. Sununu said Wednesday, March 4 that New Hampshire will join 17 other states in defending the Affordable Care Act, as a case that is aimed at repealing the law goes before the U.S. Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File) Robert F. Bukaty

Monitor staff
Published: 7/24/2020 5:18:29 PM

New Hampshire’s statewide reopening guidance for schools came at a time of high uncertainty. Months into a foray into “remote learning,” parents and teachers were facing burnout; district officials were grappling with how best to reopen.

The 54-page guidance, announced by Gov. Chris Sununu July 14, was meant to cut through that uncertainty, providing broad suggestions for how districts could structure their reopening plans.

But the unease still remains. And now, Democrats are seeking to use it.

The New Hampshire Democratic Party is planning to roll out an “Educators Against Sununu” campaign next week, complete with “teacher to teacher” phone calls and a website, according to Holly Shulman, a party spokeswoman. Democratic gubernatorial candidates Dan Feltes and Andru Volinsky have sharply criticized Sununu on their own terms and given alternative visions. In Feltes’s case, the Concord senator produced an alternate, 19-page plan that creates stronger top-down mandates for schools.

It’s a push by the party to zero in on a COVID-19 issue that they hope can resonate against a governor with high popularity. An April survey from the University of New Hampshire found that Granite Staters approve of Sununu’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic by 89%. It’s a height that the governor has consistently managed to meet.

For the Democrats seeking his position, finding the perfect weak point around Sununu’s coronavirus handling – whether the abnormally high case rate at long-term care facility outbreaks or the lack of a statewide mask mandate – has proven elusive. His approach to schools, Democrats hope, could provide a turning point.

It’s a topic that has provided a mixed response among Granite Staters already. Survey data released Monday by the Department of Education indicates that while large majorities of parents and teachers are ready for in-school classes to resume, similar majorities are concerned about student and teacher safety when they do.

Democratic politicians have argued that the concerns could be mitigated with a more concrete plan, and one with mandates. Both Feltes and Volinsky have called for a statewide mask requirement students and teachers; Feltes would require it for middle schoolers and older, while Volinsky’s would start at the second grade and higher.

But the Democrats’ alternative proposals go further than masks. In his plan, Feltes called for stringent thresholds that must be met before a school can open – and others that would necessitate the school close its doors again.

To start, under Feltes’s vision, the state would carry out assessments of each school’s air filtration systems before letting them open. Those that didn’t pass and needed an upgrade to their HVAC systems “must continue with remote learning until these infrastructure fixes can be made,” the Feltes plan states.

County to county COVID-19 levels would also be a factor for opening or closing. If the county of the school experienced above 100 cases per 100,000 people over 14 days, or hit a number of other triggers, all schools in the county would close.

Then there’s testing. Teachers would all be given optional, weekly access to COVID-19 tests under Feltes’s proposal. Temperature checks would be carried out daily and high schoolers would also have access to the tests.

If a positive case were found, the school would shut down for two days; if multiple cases were uncovered, the school would return to remote learning for at least two weeks.

The proposed conditions are meant as a backstop to a resurgence of the coronavirus in the Granite State. But they also significantly increase the chances of multiple school districts opening only to close again when conditions couldn’t be met – or not being able to open at all due to infrastructure needs.

Feltes says that’s by design.

“I don’t know the likelihood (of schools shutting down), but I do know if people are testing positive, well then steps should be taken,” Feltes said. “That’s why testing is so important… I think it’s better to figure if there are positive cases to actually contain it, rather than let an outbreak run through an entire school and perhaps an entire community.”

Volinsky, in contrast, has not released a 19-page school plan. But he espouses some – but not all – of the same positions.

The Concord executive councilor says that school ventilation infrastructure is in dire need of repair, and requires funding from both state and federal sources to complete that repair before reopening happens.

He agrees that students and teachers must wear a mask in all schools, though for more ages and grade levels than Feltes does, following the second grade and above standard set by Vermont and Massachusetts.

And the cleaning protocols, bus distancing, and worker sick leave policies among both Feltes and Volinsky are similar.

Still, Volinsky’s vision differs from his fellow Concord opponent’s in key ways. For one, his proposal emphasizes outdoor instruction wherever possible.

“And if that means canopies or tents erected on the ball fields, that’s what you do,” Volinsky said in an interview Thursday’.

Secondly, Volinsky’s preferred reopening model includes more deference to school districts than Feltes’s. The districts would be allowed to decide themselves whether to close in the event of a positive case, and what the cleanup and response might look like.

“This is an area where public health dictates need to be addressed by local school districts in a way that’s practical and appropriate,” Volinsky. “I don’t think the state should say two days for this, a week for that.”

More broadly, the Volinsky approach builds in an assumption that schools will not be open long. Under the plan, districts would stay open – if possible – through October.

But they would likely close then, whether to ward against a second wave of the virus or to mitigate the colder weather. Throughout the beginning of the school year, districts would keep their remote learning plans up to date, ready to dust them off immediately.

The candidates’ outlines also rely on an expanded use of the federal funds provided through the 21st CARES Act, which the Sununu’s administration has been disbursing. On Thursday, Sununu urged Congressional lawmakers – including Senate Republicans – to pass a new aid package that includes support for states and towns.

The two candidates’ plans stand in strong contrast to Sununu’s on one key aspect: mandates. But Sununu argues the voluntary model is the only one workable for the state.

Feltes and Volinsky aren’t the only Democrats looking to hammer the Republican governor over reopening. The state party has jumped in as well.

A new website titled “Educators Against Sununu” seeks to slam the Department of Education’s voluntary guidelines, while a series of phone banks will see Democratically aligned teachers calling up colleagues to seek to solidify opposition to them.

The goal, party officials say, is to draw contrasts on an issue that most Granite Staters are tuned into, and an aspect of the coronavius pandemic that might be more easily pinned to a state governor.

For Sununu, though, the criticisms from some don’t represent the feelings of the state overall, which he argues is overwhelmingly ready to return.

“The threshold to return to statewide remote learning is extremely different now, because we have (personal protective equipment), we know how the virus moves, we have more funding available, because we understand the values of social distancing, the availability of masks, and the flexibilities that everyone understands, and, again, listening to the parents and the teachers saying, ‘Yeah, we can make this work. We want our kids to go back to school,’” the governor said earlier this month.

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