Our Turn: School reopening uncertainty: Flexibility is not an excuse

Published: 7/31/2020 6:20:14 AM

Picture this: It’s a cold day this November and 25 children are returning to their classroom from recess. They take off their coats, breathing hard, and return to their desks. No one is wearing a mask – the school district didn’t want to mandate face coverings without knowing if there would be funding to provide them for free.

The classroom, built in the 1950s, was designed to hold about 15 students. To fit everyone, kids must sit a few feet away from each other.

The air circulation system was supposed to have been updated years ago, but a shrinking budget in this property-poor town has meant that HVAC upgrades have been out of reach for a long time. It’s been hard to prioritize air quality when their school district doesn’t even have money to hire enough teachers.

No one wants this to be the scene in New Hampshire schools come November. But the reality is, without a clear plan and guarantee of funding from the state, versions of this grim scene are looking more possible.

As one Dover Middle School teacher said, “We feel like guinea pigs.”

When we talk with people about the issues facing New Hampshire, we talk about COVID-19, the economy, climate change, health care, and racial justice. The crisis of uncertainty in regard to reopening didn’t have to be a crisis, too, but it is thanks to the state telling school districts they are on their own.

The shortcomings of the New Hampshire school reopening plan stem from a lack of political leadership by the current governor and his education commissioner. But it’s more than that.

Generations of governors and legislatures have devalued New Hampshire’s public schools and put them in an impossible position. With virtually no building aid since 2008, and the state paying less than a quarter of the cost of education, it’s no wonder we are in trouble.

We’re seeing the impossibility more clearly right now because the new costs placed on schools to safely educate students this fall have made our pre-existing problems even worse. New Hampshire ranks last in the nation for state support of public education. We knew this “hands-off approach” to public education would always have consequences sooner or later. We can see more clearly now that plans that favor “flexibility” really just leave already-strapped schools to fend for themselves.

It’s not too late to provide schools with the needed clarity and comprehensive support they need to be safe and effective this year. Here are 10 actions and priorities that will set a new course for our schools:

1) Make resources available to schools. Additional resources will be necessary to reopen. We must make CARES Act funds available to supplement school district resources. The poorest districts should receive the most aid. Frank Edelblut needs to reject the Betsy DeVos agenda to siphon critical money from public schools to private schools.

2) Mask and temperature mandate. Every child, every educator, and every school staff member should wear a mask while traveling or at school. The state should procure and supply PPE to schools to avoid bidding wars and stockpiling. Start from this position of safety and institute exceptions where needed. Take every staff member’s and every child’s temperature when they come to school. Send any child with an elevated temp to the school nurse for further evaluation. Yes, school nurses are an important part of our response.

3) Reduce bus density. Where possible, ask parents to drive or walk their kids to school. Where this is not possible, add bus routes where needed.

4) Reduce classroom density. Stagger schedules to decrease the number of people who need to gather at one time, either by reducing school days, or implementing morning and afternoon shifts.

5) Teach outdoors. Taking into account the New Hampshire weather, we need to get creative and get students outside when possible. Funds should be made available for schools to rent canopies in order to accomplish this.

6) Test all learning spaces. The air inside learning spaces should turn over 2.5 times every hour. We need to test, add additional air exchange capacity, and cordon off any areas of schools that don’t meet standards.

7) Plan to end in-person instruction in late October. Use the early part of the school year to focus on social and emotional learning, checking in with students to assess their needs, and fully prepare kids to go remote at least for the winter months.

8) Provide remote learning options. We need to support robust options for students and families who are unable or concerned about attending school in person.

9) Update Individualized Education Program (IEPs). Our learning plans should reflect our new reality. Work with parents and caregivers to upgrade their ability to provide services. Make arrangements for in-home or short-visit consultations.

10) Workers compensation. Through an emergency order, establish that when a school employee contracts COVID-19, it will be presumed to be work related. We need to support employees who are serving our students.

New Hampshire is a strong and resilient state. Our teachers have big hearts and regularly make huge sacrifices for their students. It’s a tragedy that we are currently asking them if they’re willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their students. It comes down to leadership. Chris Sununu has failed to provide leadership. Frank Edelblut, with the blessing of Betsy DeVos, has endangered our children and school personnel by dictating a hands-off approach to re-opening.

New Hampshire deserves better.

We still have time to avoid overcrowded classrooms, poor air circulation, and no masks. We can mitigate what is currently a school reopening crisis – in the short term. And we can use this crisis moment to finally fix our broken school funding system, for good.

But we need real leadership now.

(Andru Volinsky is executive councilor for District 2 and a candidate for governor. Amanda Russell is a member of the Dover school board.)


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