Task force forwards recommendations for students to return to classes in fall

  • Michelle Gregg, kitchen manager for Merrimack Valley Middle School, packs drinks into the bags set for delivery at the Merrimack Valley High cafeteria on Monday morning, May 25, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 6/30/2020 5:45:52 PM

A state task force on school reopening finalized a list of recommendations on how districts should welcome back students for the fall semester amid the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Department of Education’s task force was made up of teachers, administrators, parents, students and other school representatives. Ideas were developed in six working groups, and then worked into final recommendations by the 12-member task force that were submitted to Gov. Chris Sununu Tuesday.

The recommendations encourage school districts to pay attention to the guidance of health officials, including the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services and the governor’s office but keep much of the decision making at the local level. 

“Any time that health is mentioned, or safety, the recommendation should really default to something like, ‘the recommendations of state and local health and/or medical officials,’ because this is all changing so quickly that whatever we may recommend today could be outdated,” said task force member Steve Kossakoski, CEO of Virtual Learning Academy Charter School in Exeter.

Districts will also be recommended to develop policies around social distancing and doing health screenings on staff, students and visitors before entering the school. But granular guidance on issues like who should wear a mask, how many students should be allowed in a cafeteria at a time or how to achieve social distancing with large class sizes has yet to emerge.

By contrast, guidelines issued by the Massachusetts Department of Education on June 25 are more rigid, requiring all students second grade and older and all employees to wear face masks at all times when inside buildings, and desks must be spaced six feet apart.

“These recommendations are a living document,” New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said Monday. “As information evolves, we will continue to monitor the circumstances in the state of New Hampshire, we will work closely with HHS, we will monitor the situation with the CDC and may update this guidance throughout the process. Circumstances can change over the summer and even into the school year and we want to be cognizant of that.”

Other aspects of the recommendations include:

Hybrid learning 

School districts should adopt a plan for providing in-person, remote and “hybrid” instruction for students in the 2020-21 school year, that can make it possible to keep learning going as public health conditions change, in case districts have to close school buildings and transition back to remote instruction.

Task force members said these models are also important to accommodate those who do not feel comfortable in an in-person environment.

“At the end of the day, this is going to happen. There are going to be students or there are going to be teachers who are immunocompromised who are not going to feel safe walking back into the building and if districts don’t have plans for that, that’s when the problem is going to happen,” said task force member Phil Nazarro, a member of the state Board of Education.

Masks and hygiene

School districts will mainly decide for themselves who uses personal protective equipment, how they will obtain it and train people to wear it, based on official health guidelines.

The recommends that schools evaluate policies for cleaning school buildings and encouraging good hygiene, including washing hands, sneezing into elbows and social distancing as much as possible.

Technology

During its meetings, the task force discussed the importance of training employees to make sure they know how to use online teaching software and how to design a curriculum for remote teaching.

“The earlier districts figure this out, the better,” said Ben Lambright, a student task force member. “I remember having to help a lot of the elderly teachers at my school figure out software like Zoom. I got volunteer hours trying to show them what buttons to click. If we use just one or two pieces of software and we figure out what districts are going to use early, the more time we have to help teachers figure out how to use the software and how to provide the best instruction.”

The task force also discussed privacy concerns in online learning and making sure personally identifiable information of staff and students is secure.

“When that laptop leaves school, how many people at home have access to it, what are we as a district responsible for?” said task force member Aaron Goldman, the technology integration specialist at Lafayette Regional School.

Transportation

Districts should review their school bus transportation policies and plan for potential driver shortages and for shortages of personal protection equipment, because many of New Hampshire’s bus drivers are considered at-risk for COVID-19, based on age.

Goldman said it’s important to make sure everyone understands their district’s requirements from the beginning.

“We can work with our students on the first day talking about practices, but what’s that first day before they even come into school what’s that going to look like, how do they get on the bus?” Goldman said.

Meals

The task force says school districts should consider adjusting meal schedules to reduce the number of people eating in the cafeteria at the same time. In the case that there are students who are not attending on-site school, school districts will have to come up with a plan for getting meals to them, the task force said.

In the June 29 meeting, task force member Dellie Champagne, from the NH Children’s Behavioral Health Collaborative, suggested recommending that schools make bottles of hand sanitizer available on every table at mealtimes.

“Some of them probably won't go to the bathroom to wash their hands,” Champagne said. “The teacher can gently remind them about the hand sanitizer bottles on the table. It's the most important time to have clean hands, I would think."

Task force member Keith Noyes, a math teacher at Belmont Middle School, said it’s important to consider times of the day where teachers can remove masks if they are required to wear them.

“Teachers are going to need a break where they can take that mask off,” Noyes said. “I would hate for some districts to force teachers into not getting breaks that they need.”

Emotional wellness

Some of the task force’s recommendations focus on mental health and so cial-emotional well-being for students, families and educators, including recommending outreach programs for at-risk students and coordinating support from mental health providers in the c ommunity for those who need it.

It was also recommended that employees be trained on trauma-responsive instruction and social-emotional learning, to better communicate with students returning to school amid a pandemic.

After submitting a list of general recommendations to the governor, the task force will be elaborating on each recommendation with details on how districts can best implement them. It will also be conducting a community survey to assess public opinion on fall opening.




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