Schools prepare to return five days a week after governor’s order

  • Stella and Juniper Zimmer of Peterborough get on the bus to Peterborough Elementary School on Wednesday morning. Governor Chris Sununu recently ordered all New Hampshire schools to return to five days a week of in-person learning. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 4/7/2021 4:31:32 PM

Local schools are shifting to a full-time in-person schedule after Governor Chris Sununu ordered last week that all schools in the state must provide parents the option to be in school five days a week by April 19.

The Mascenic Regional School District and the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District both have grade levels still operating on a hybrid schedule with at least one remote learning day scheduled per week. Both will be eliminating their remote day on April 19, in compliance with Sununu’s order. Other area districts have already implemented a full-time in-person option, either in response to the governor’s order or as part of established reopening plans.

During Monday’s School Board meeting, Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative board members were split on whether April 19 was the appropriate date to return. School Board member Lisa Wiley originally moved that the board should request a waiver from the state to allow the district to return on May 10, instead of April 19. By May 10, the district staff would have had access to both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, plus a two-week period for full effectiveness, and it would also allow a quarantine period after the April vacation.

Wiley said that was the safest plan for Jaffrey-Rindge.

“I feel frustrated that the government all along has said the decision is in the hands of the superintendents,” said Wiley, who said Jaffrey-Rindge’s plan has been based in caution and science. “We have to not let ourselves be railroaded by this very random decision.”

While Sununu has alluded to all school staff being able to access full doses of the vaccine by April 19, Superintendent Reuben Duncan said “That’s not true, and he knows this.” Some staff will have been fully vaccinated by that point, but not all, and some will not have had sufficient time after their final dose to make enough antibodies so that the vaccine is at its most effective.

School Board member Patricia Farmer said she was in favor of starting in-person full-time with the date of April 19, saying the district needed to “move forward.”

Wiley suggested the district seek the waiver, but at the same time, move forward with planning for the contingency that the waiver is denied and the district has to move forward with five days of in-person learning on April 19. The vote resulted in a 3-3 tie, and with no majority, did not pass. Immediately after, the board voted to move forward with a full opening date of April 19, which did pass, 4-2.

Jaffrey-Rindge discussed two other points raised by Sununu last week, regarding travel quarantines and what constitutes “close contact” between individuals.

The board agreed to adopt looser travel quarantine guidance effective immediately in a 5-1 vote, after first failing to pass a motion that would only have changed the guidance after April 24, which would take into account those traveling over April vacation.

The new guidance from the state Department of Public Health Services no longer requires quarantine upon returning to New Hampshire from travel anywhere within the United Stated. Until Monday, the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative required quarantine for anyone within the district traveling outside of New England. During its Monday meeting, the board adopted new guidelines that no longer require quarantine for those who travel domestically, as long as they follow travel guidance and test for COVID-19 within three to five days after traveling.

The Jaffrey-Rindge district is also now considering people to have been closer than three feet for longer than 10 minutes to have been in “close contact” for the purposes of contact tracing. However, board members were clear that it would maintain a six-foot social distancing policy in its classrooms. Duncan pointed out that the district had agreed to a social distancing guideline of six feet when negotiating with the teacher’s union and agreeing to a memorandum of understanding about return-to-school procedures. Duncan said the schools could accommodate the six-foot rule, and it had been an important point that both the administration and staff agreed upon in the fall, and there was no reason to change it at this point, saying, “We’ve been firm on this since the beginning.” The School Board agreed and voted unanimously to adopt the new guidelines for contact tracing but to maintain six feet of distance as the standard for social distancing rules within the school.

The Mascenic School Board also met Monday, but did not explicitly discuss a full-time return plan. The board’s next meeting is scheduled for April 19.

School Board Chair Rachel Anderson said Superintendent Christine Martin met with school administrators to discuss what adjustments might have to be made for high school and kindergarten classes, which are the only ones still on a four-days-a-week schedule for the Mascenic School District. Currently, Highbridge Hill Elementary first- through fifth-graders, and all grade levels at the Boynton Middle School are already operating five days a week. Mascenic High School students are in-person four days a week, with Wednesdays a remote day for teachers to meet with fully remote students.

The preschool is also four days a week, but Anderson said that was the normal practice for the preschool before the pandemic, and would likely not change.

Martin said Wednesday the district’s teachers got access to vaccinations later than some of its neighboring districts. Though currently 91 percent of the staff at Mascenic has at least started the vaccination process, Martin said, all staff will not have completed the process by April 19.

Martin said the district has been using social distancing metrics of at least three feet for children and more when it can be accommodated, and six feet for adults. Those protocols will remain in place.

Martin was scheduled to meet with the Mascenic teacher’s union on Wednesday to discuss reopening plans and hear any concerns from the teacher’s perspective, but said so far, things were “looking very good” and on track to start the high school back on five days a week starting April 19.

Some districts already back in-person

Last week, immediately following Sununu’s announcement, ConVal Regional School District announced plans to return five days a week for its middle and high school grades as of April 5.

All high school students were allowed to return to ConVal in-person on Monday after previously alternating weeks of in-person and remote. A little over 82 percent of high school students chose to return in person, Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders told School Board members Tuesday night.

“Students were very happy to be back,” she said, with the school marking only about three absences on Monday from among the in-person students. Students who wish to remain remote, regardless of grade level, continue to have that option. Elementary students have been learning in-person five days a week since the start of the school year, but administrators were still looking at the executive order’s impacts on middle and high school schedules as of Friday, according to a press release.

School transportation is an issue the district is working through with individual families and the bus company, Rizzo Saunders said. ConVal has continued to separate students by pod and building, and 80 percent of its buses are being used for middle schoolers, leaving just 20 percent for high school students, according to an update the District posted on April 2.

ConVal students will continue to be expected to retain at least three feet of distance, wear masks, and self-screen daily for COVID-19 symptoms.

The Mason School Board made the decision to return to school five days a week in mid-March, as the vaccine rollout became accessible for their staff. The Mason Elementary School, which includes kindergarten through first grade, was approved to return to five days of in-person learning starting April 5. Preschool students returned for four days of instruction – with Wednesdays off – starting March 22.

The Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative District began the school year with a full-time in-person option.

Reporter Abbe Hamilton contributed to this report.


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