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Sununu to order schools open for in-person learning, citing mental health concerns

  • Rundlett Middle School, looking down a hallway of sixth-grade classrooms on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Published: 2/19/2021 11:07:31 AM

Gov. Chris Sununu signed an executive order Friday that will require schools to open for in-person learning at least two days a week by March 8.

An unprecedented number of children have been waiting for psychiatric care in February, which Sununu partly attributed to the isolation caused by remote learning. Last week, 48 children were waiting for inpatient psychiatric beds, the highest number of children on the list in the eight years since emergency department boarding began.

“It really is for the behavioral and mental health...that so many of our students have been bearing,” he said in a press conference Thursday. “It has to be at least a couple days a week to get some eyes on these kids, to get that personal relationship re-established between students and their teachers.” 

Sununu has been pushing for schools to reopen for months, which has drawn public criticism from teachers’ unions that have demanded earlier access to the vaccine. At a press conference Thursday, Sununu said about 60% of schools in the state are already using a hybrid model. Schools will be permitted to pause in-person learning for a couple of days if they face a critical staffing shortage or an outbreak of COVID-19, he said. 

Exactly how the state will guide schools to reopen is still murky. 

Last week, the CDC released guidance that offered a systematic and clear strategy to help schools reopen for in-person learning. New Hampshire officials have decided not to incorporate the guidance into their state plan, they announced Wednesday. 

Dr. Ben Chan, the state epidemiologist, and Frank Edelblut, the commissioner of the N.H. Department of Education, said the guidance "would place unnecessary barriers to in-person learning". They argued New Hampshire schools have already ironed out safety precautions that sufficiently stop the coronavirus from spreading through classrooms.

As of Thursday, there were no current school outbreaks of COVID-19 and 140 isolated cases associated with N.H schools.

The decision to reject this new guidance was confusing for some, who argued state officials are inconsistent in which CDC guidance they choose to follow. Earlier this month, Sununu issued a press release praising the organization for their stance on reopening schools.

“There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said to reporters at the beginning of the month.

Sununu echoed the statement.

“The CDC Director’s comments are consistent with the data and studies that show that with proper safety protocols in place, schools can be open safely for in-person learning,” he said in a statement.

However, about two weeks later, the state rejected the CDC’s guidance on the mechanism for opening schools, which heavily draws from the most up-to-date data and research. Megan Tuttle, the president of NEA New Hampshire, the largest teachers’ union in the state, said it isn’t clear how the state is making decisions about which federal guidance it adopts.

“The governor is picking and choosing the science he wants to follow,” Tuttle said. “Everything is all over the place.” 

The new CDC guidance lays out a series of different factors, sorted into color coded boxes, that schools should consider while deciding to open for in-person learning, such as the number of new COVID-19 cases compared to the population, and the school's ability to implement safety strategies like social distancing, testing and consistent mask wearing.

While the guidance encourages areas with low community transmission of the virus to open up for in-person classes, it discourages middle and high schools in areas of high rates of community transmission from fully reopening. 

The CDC guidance clarifies that even if the community transmission is determined to be high based on these factors, schools who are already open may decide to remain open.

"These decisions should be guided by information on school-specific factors such as mitigation strategies implemented, local needs, stakeholder input, the number of cases among students, teachers, and staff, and school experience," it reads.

Top education and health officials in N.H have also pushed back against the CDC's COVID-19 testing recommendations.

For districts that choose to use COVID testing as a way to spot outbreaks, the new document recommends testing teachers weekly. Students should also be tested weekly in moderate to high transmission areas, which could include several counties in the state. New Hampshire’s reopening plan primarily recommends COVID-19 testing for symptomatic staff or students.

Lori Shibinette, the commissioner of the Department of Health, also announced at the press conference that New Hampshire Hospital – the state’s psychiatric medical facility – will open up 10 beds to children to help ease the boarding crisis. The hospital stopped admitting children last year when Hampstead Hospital opened to help this demographic. 

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