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COVID Reflections: Local school districts, college adapt on the fly to changing landscape of education during historic pandemic

  • ConVal High School held its Class of 2020 graduation ceremony on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020. (BEN CONANT / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Copyright Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to news@ledgertranscript.com. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • The Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative High School Class of 2020 held their graduation ceremony at the Milford Drive-In on Friday, June 5, 2020. (BEN CONANT / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Copyright Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to news@ledgertranscript.com. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • The Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative High School Class of 2020 held their graduation ceremony at the Milford Drive-In on Friday, June 5, 2020. (BEN CONANT / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Copyright Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to news@ledgertranscript.com. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Conant High School seniors graduated in a socially-distanced ceremony at the Jaffrey Silver Ranch Airpark on Friday evening. Copyright Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to news@ledgertranscript.com. Staff photo by Ashley Saari

  • Mascenic senior Byron Tapply works on his school-issue face mask before the Vikings’ outdoor graduation in June. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Adalyn Rodimon gets her temperature checked before entering Florence Rideout Elementary School in Wilton for the first day of school. Staff photo by Ashley Saari

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 3/26/2021 1:29:48 PM

Reopening schools safely has been one of the major challenges of COVID-19, as school districts tried to juggle student and staff safety and mental health while students and parents found ways to adapt to the changes.

Governor Chris Sununu ordered New Hampshire schools closed on March 16, 2020, and all districts in the state were ordered to provide full remote learning for students by March 23. It was a rapid shift from the education style most teachers and students were accustomed to.

“We had two days. We did this in two days, and it’s really going pretty well,” Great Brook School Extended Learning Opportunities teacher Maryanne Cullinan said in March 2020, after GBS and the rest of the ConVal district schools switched over to remote learning’s unknown frontier.

There were challenges. Students and teachers navigated technical difficulties and became comprehensively familiar with Zoom, the video chat app that’s become a part of many people’s daily lives. The disparities in home internet access became readily apparent as students from around the district logged in virtually each day with varying levels of connectivity. And keeping children at home all day forced parents into difficult situations as they juggled work, family and their new jobs as part-time Zoom instructors.

“Every single day is a different story,” said Greenville parent Brittany Christiansen, who said she sometimes resorted to bringing her two children to work with her so they could use their van’s mobile hotspot to access the internet for remote learning. “It’s just straight chaos.”

After about two months of makeshift remote learning, students were cut free for the summer and sent out into the open air while school districts worked out safe graduation plans and began laying the groundwork for a return to school in the fall. The senior classes from our local schools missed out on some of the traditional events and memories they’d expected to experience in those final high school days.

“Nobody ever imagined that we would spend our last day in school in the middle of March,” said Wilton-Lyndeborough salutatorian Kaitlin LoVerme in her graduation speech.

But the upheaval was par for the course for students born into a world still reeling from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, who lived most of their lives with war ongoing in the Middle East, made their way through the recession of 2008 and graduated amid a global pandemic. And, thanks to the school districts and parent volunteers, they had graduations they’d never forget. Conant High School took to the Jaffrey airport for a socially distanced ceremony on the runway; Mascenic hosted their ceremony on a grand stage in front of the school; ConVal took to the football field in August, and WLC seniors collected their diplomas under the big screen of the Milford Drive-In, car horns honking in appreciation.

College

Franklin Pierce University went full remote in March and finished their semester virtually before returning students to campus in the fall. FPU instituted a rigorous testing and quarantine policy for students. 

“Although we are taking additional steps in light of the reality we now face, the fall term, like all of those before it, will provide our students with the memorable, personal, and enriching experiences that make Franklin Pierce so unique,” president Kim Mooney said. 

FPU tested students on a regular basis and went remote after Thanksgiving break to slow the expected holiday outbreaks. The campus did see a brief spike of at least 50 concurrent active cases in February, but is currently reporting zero active cases, according to the state’s COVID dashboard. 

The 2020-21 school year

All the local public schools took steps to limit possible exposure in the new school year. Whether it was ConVal’s split into Blue and Gold cohorts – only one of which would be in school in-person at a given time – Jaffrey-Rindge’s planned remote days, or the hybrid options offered at Mascenic, WLC and the rest, student safety seemed to be the number one priority. Districts monitored their classrooms carefully, announced positive cases and enacted quarantine requirements when their protocols required it.  It required flexibility – one never knew leaving school on Thursday if they might not be back Friday due to a classmate’s test result – and a lot of Zoom meetings for the districts’ COVID monitoring teams. 

Athletics

March’s school closures shut down the winter sports season just at its’ climax, with teams from Mascenic and ConVal named champions despite being unable to complete their full playoff tournaments. It also forced the cancellation of the entire spring sports season for all the local high schools and for Franklin Pierce University.

When fall rolled around, schools had to make a tough decision: could they really compete in an interscholastic sports season during a pandemic? The Northeast-10 Conference, which governs FPU, thought not; the Ravens wouldn’t play again until 2021, when an abbreviated winter sports season transitioned into the spring season now just getting underway.

The ConVal School District also went the conservative route, keeping student-athletes split by their cohort groups and only allowing team practices rather than games against other schools.

Mascenic, Conant and Wilton-Lyndeborough made it work, following NHIAA guidelines and pulling off full seasons playing against teams in their geographic area to reduce travel.

ConVal approved winter sports, as did the rest of the local high schools; swimming and indoor track were casualties, due to the lack of available facilities. As the games went indoors, two big changes took place – fan attendance was limited or in some situations restricted altogether, and student-athletes in all sports were required to wear masks while in competition.

The mask policy had been less prevalent in the fall, but indoors, they were necessary, which caused a whole new set of problems for athletes, coaches and officials alike. No matter the style or material, whether school-provided or brought from home, masks were tough to keep above the nose in the heat of athletic competition – and, it’s harder to talk and breathe, especially when you’re hustling.

“Breathing is one of the hardest things,” said ConVal basketball player Emily Donovan. “Wearing a mask made it even more hard to get back into shape. I don’t think any athlete will get used to playing in a mask but at least we can still play and that’s all that matters to us.”

Coaches and referees were required to mask up as well, making barking orders or blowing the whistle a little more difficult. Refs opted for handheld electronic “whistles” or sought out specially designed facemasks with built-in whistle pouches.

Coaches found it a little harder to instruct their teams through a layer of cloth, though the acoustic nuances of empty, fanless stadiums did help their voices carry plenty loud enough to pick up on the live video stream.

“It kind of muffles me, which is probably good,” ConVal-Conant girls’ ice hockey coach Chris Spingola said.

Ultimately, the fall and winter sports seasons wrapped up with no evidence that any student-athletes contracted or spread COVID-19 during competition or practice.

“I personally feel blessed that I have been able to have a senior basketball season,” Conant girls’ basketball captain Elizabeth Gonyea said, “even if we did have to wear a mask the entire time. I am so glad that we were able to just play.”

All the local schools are expected to participate in spring sports for the first time since 2019.

What’s next

Now, we’re closer than ever to fully reopening our schools. In February, Sununu ordered all schools to return to at least some in-person learning (80 percent already had); outdoor classrooms are looking more feasible again as temperatures rise, and just-released CDC guidelines about three-foot social distancing are paving the way for even more students to return to the classroom.

On top of all that, New Hampshire has entered Phase 2A of vaccine distribution, which is now open to all K-12 school staff.


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