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Keene State freshmen look beyond pandemic protocols to year ahead
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Eric Brown was hoping he wouldn’t have to begin his freshman year at Keene State College under COVID-19 protocols like regular testing and mandatory indoor masking.

“But whatever, it’s COVID,” said Brown, a Londonderry resident planning to study cybersecurity. “You have to work around it.”

Like all of the roughly 725 first-year students who moved to campus Wednesday, Brown first went to the Keene State Athletic Complex on Krif Road to be tested for the novel coronavirus before he moved into The Commons residence hall. With these sorts of health and safety measures in place, Brown said he’s not really concerned about COVID-19 on campus, even with the rise of the more contagious delta variant.

“I’m not too worried,” he said, noting that he and his roommate are both vaccinated against the disease. “... I’m just glad we’re not [taking classes] online. At least we’re here.”

Brown’s stepmother, Meredith, agreed, and said she thought Keene State did well facilitating the first-year move-in process Wednesday.


“They’re doing all the right things and still making it welcoming and enjoyable for the kids,” she said. “So I think the school’s done a really great job with balancing their responsibility and then understanding the kids, what their needs are and what their experience, especially as freshmen, should be.”

This balance, Keene State President Melinda Treadwell said, is exactly what the college tries to strike when it welcomes new students to campus.

“It’s honestly one of my favorite things that we do,” she said. “The move-in is an opportunity for this campus to welcome our new students and their families in a way that is unique. … I think it’s just part of saying, ‘We’re here to help get you settled, get you started.’ So I love it.”

And after more than a year and a half of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, Treadwell said she believes Keene State can continue to keep students and employees safe and healthy in the new academic year.

“We proved we could not only survive but thrive during COVID last year,” she said. “We did a lot of our normal work, and our students loved being here. So I’m confident, with COVID, we can manage it.”

This begins with the arrival testing, Treadwell said, which will help the school get a baseline of the coronavirus’ presence on campus. Keene State is working with a lab at the University of New Hampshire in Durham to conduct COVID-19 tests this year, and the college would have results from Wednesday morning by the end of the day, Treadwell said. Upperclassmen return to campus this weekend, and will follow a similar testing procedure ahead of the first day of classes Monday.

Along with Keene State’s roughly 3,100 students, all of the college’s 633 employees will be tested for COVID-19 before the new school year begins, spokeswoman Kelly Ricaurte said. Weekly campus-wide testing will continue at least through September, Ricaurte said, at which point the college will re-evaluate how often testing is necessary, based on the public health situation on campus and in the community.

Anyone who tests positive for the novel coronavirus at Keene State will be contacted by the school’s Rapid Response Team, which will provide instructions for isolating, and quarantining for unvaccinated close contacts of people who test positive. Fully vaccinated students and employees who come in close contact with infected people will not need to quarantine.

Due to a new state law, Keene State, along with the rest of New Hampshire’s public university system, will not require a COVID-19 vaccine this fall. But, Keene State is encouraging all students and staff to get the shot, and consider sharing proof of vaccination with the school’s Wellness Center through a confidential online portal.

As of Wednesday, Ricaurte said about 69 percent of faculty and staff and 46 percent of students have provided proof of vaccination, but the college expects those figures to grow daily as more people return to campus.

Alyssa Leonard, a freshman from Bellows Falls, is fully vaccinated, which her mother, Jen, said gives her peace of mind moving into her dorm.

“So I feel like we’ve taken the precautions that we can to keep her healthy,” Jen Leonard said. “And I think she’ll know to wash her hands. I think last year would have been harder, but I think coming into this year, everybody has a pretty good handle on how to go about it.”

Alyssa, who plans to study elementary education, added that she feels comfortable with the health and safety measures Keene State has enacted for her first semester, including a mask requirement in buildings on campus, and for outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people.

“I guess I hoped that we wouldn’t be having to wear masks, but it’s not really a surprise,” she said. “... I feel like Keene has a really good COVID protocol in place. I feel safe on campus.”

Spencer Mirken, a freshman from Holliston, Mass., who plans to study sports management and play basketball at Keene State, said he also feels like the college’s reopening plan will keep him and his peers safe.

“I think the school’s got it covered,” Mirken said as he moved into his dorm room in The Commons on Wednesday morning. “Even just being here today, it looks super organized, which is great, and it’s really clean, which is also a huge deal.”

Mirken added that he’s excited to get started at Keene State, and meet his new classmates and teammates. In short, he said, he’s looking forward to a regular college experience.

“I just want a smooth year, really,” he said, “and a sense of normalcy.”

Get shots or get out, US employers tell workers and consumers

Vaccine mandates are beginning a march across the U.S., constricting the places that people who have shunned the shots can work, shop and play.

A day after the federal Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, institutions central to their regions announced tougher — perhaps bellwether — rules. In New York, a city driven by finance, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. required bankers to prove they’d been vaccinated. In football-crazed Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University will demand vaccines or negative COVID tests to see a game at Tiger Stadium, capacity 102,000.

CVS Health Corp. this week mandated shots for corporate employees and those working with patients, while Chevron Corp. and Hess Corp. added requirements for employees on oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Walt Disney Co. announced a deal with its roughly 40,000 unionized theme-park workers in Florida. Delta Air Lines Inc. said Wednesday that it would levy a monthly $200 charge on workers who refuse to protect themselves.

Such stringent requirements had been relatively rare in the U.S., as companies and politicians tried to avoid angering a significant segment of the population hostile to vaccines and other health measures. But President Joe Biden this week encouraged public and private sector employers to crack down. The FDA approval emboldened them to demand that workers and consumers get shots or get out.

In government, 19 states, plus the nation’s capital and Puerto Rico, are already requiring at least some workers to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing. Ohio State University said Tuesday that faculty, staff members and all of its almost 60,000 students must be vaccinated by Oct. 15.

Sandra Crouse Quinn, a professor in the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, said she expected an “avalanche” of similar moves among public and private institutions. “Companies and universities believe that they have a stronger leg to stand on to mandate vaccines,” she said.

The U.S. is reaching a critical juncture, with the emergence of the highly infectious delta variant and more than 100 million eligible residents still not fully vaccinated. Alarming surges of hospitalizations in Florida and the Deep South have dispelled any lingering perception that current levels of immunity were enough to emerge from the pandemic.

Gerald Harmon, head of the American Medical Association, said society’s fight against COVID could drag on for years: “The way to regain the upper hand in this fight is requiring vaccinations — specifically vaccine mandates,” he said.

Disney, the world’s largest entertainment company, said last month that it would require vaccinations for all nonunion employees coming to the office or working at its parks. The company continues to negotiate with its other unions. In a statement, Disney said the vaccine is the “best way to protect each other.”

“Disney is not foolish,” said Quinn, the Maryland professor. “They need to make sure they have a healthy workforce so they can maintain their business.”

Even before the FDA announcement, many companies had begun stepping up their requirements, at least in major offices. Companies including Facebook Inc., McDonald’s Corp. and Citigroup Inc. instituted vaccine mandates for office workers. Walmart Inc., the largest private employer in the U.S., is requiring headquarters and regional staff to get shots by Oct. 4.

Many retail and restaurant employees who interact with customers still don’t have to get a shot. The differing restrictions for separate classes of workers lead to working conditions reminiscent of pandemic’s harrowing early days — white-collar employees enjoying a more comfortable, controlled environment while blue-collar colleagues labor where they’re more vulnerable to infection.

Some companies are seeking a middle ground to avoid weakening morale or prompting staff defections amid a tough hiring climate. Options being explored include surcharges on health-care premiums, as some companies already do for smokers, or denying free coffee, fitness rooms or other perks to the unvaccinated, according to human-resources consultants.

The companies confront stubborn resistance. A KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor survey of 1,517 U.S. adults taken July 15-27 showed about 10 percent of Americans were still in “wait and see” mode on the vaccine. Another 3 percent would only get it if required, while 14 percent would not get it under any circumstances. About 20 percent of Republicans completely reject the vaccines, versus about 5 percent of Democrats.

The opposition has been enabled by social media misinformation, conservative television and GOP politicians, who were loath to lose the antivaccination parts of their base. This weekend, even former President Donald Trump was booed during an Alabama rally when he advised attendees to get their shots. He swiftly pivoted to talking about citizens’ rights.

With the more-infectious delta variant circulating, the U.S. needs aggressive policies on vaccines to ensure the country doesn’t have to return to lockdown policies, said Danielle Ompad, associate professor of epidemiology at New York University’s School of Global Public Health. “In order for us to stay open, we really need cooperation,“ Omad said.

Speaking Monday after the Pfizer approval, Biden said he hoped the FDA’s move would ease vaccine hesitancy and give companies the confidence to act. He noted that many Americans had used the lack of full FDA approval as a reason to avoid the vaccine. For them, he said, “the moment you’ve been waiting for” has arrived.

Mandates are a crucial tool to making the nation and its economy function again, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in an interview last week.

“We have to do everything we can that’s within our control to keep people safe,” Walsh said. “And what’s in our control today is masks, is physical distancing, is washing hands, is getting vaccinated. We know: The science has told us that works.”

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Cheshire County joins community power coalition

Cheshire County demonstrated its commitment to developing a community power program Wednesday morning when commissioners voted to enter into an agreement with a statewide coalition that works to set up these programs.

Community power aggregation programs, also known as community power programs, enable municipalities to purchase power on behalf of electricity consumers. Cheshire County joins 11 Granite State cities and towns that have agreed to sign on to the Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire.

“The coalition approach to public power is common practice, widespread across the country,” said Henry Herndon, a consultant working with the in-development coalition, joining Wednesday’s meeting at the county building in downtown Keene by Zoom. “There are over 70 joint powers agencies that are serving municipal electric utilities as well as numerous serving cooperative public power entities.”

Community power programs have been gaining popularity locally since they were authorized in New Hampshire in 2019. A number of area communities have already adopted, or are in the process of preparing, plans of their own. These programs can save electricity customers money while also giving municipalities more say over where their power comes from, making them appealing to communities looking to boost their clean energy use.

Though Cheshire County has agreed to join the coalition, which is expecting to be incorporated on Oct. 1, the specifics of the community power program that would be used by the county are still up for discussion.

There are a range of ways such a program could operate in the county, said Clifton Below, Lebanon’s assistant mayor and a member of the coalition’s organization group, who also attended the meeting via videoconference. These include anything from an opt-in program in which communities could choose to participate by purchasing power for their own facilities, or a broader opt-out option that could cover all communities in the region that don’t already have community power programs in place.

“A small town might think it’s easier to do it through a county program,” Below explained.

Gov. Chris Sununu announced a signing ceremony for 10 a.m. today of House Bill 315, which sets out new rules for community power plans, referred in the bill as “the aggregation of electric customers and municipal host customer generators serving political subdivisions.” Among other changes to the existing law, it requires community aggregation plans to undergo a state Public Utilities Commission review.

Two of the municipalities that have already signed on to the coalition are in the Monadnock Region: Harrisville and Walpole. Keene adopted its own community power program earlier this year, which is awaiting approval from the N.H. Public Utilities Commission, while Peterborough, Swanzey and Dublin are also looking into such programs.

The state coalition will be governed by a board of directors composed of one appointee from each member community, which will also appoint an alternate to serve on the board if needed.

Along with voting to enter into the joint powers agreement, the commission also voted to appoint Commissioner Terry Clark, who represents Keene, Marlborough and Roxbury, as Cheshire County’s representative on the board, with County Administrator Chris Coates being approved as an alternate.

But while commissioners were unanimous in their decision to enter into the agreement, one of them had some questions. Commissioner Jack Wozmak, who represents Chesterfield, Hinsdale, Surry, Swanzey, Walpole, Westmoreland and Winchester, asked what it would mean for customers if the county implements a community power program.

“What’s the impact on the customers, how do they know where their energy is coming from, when do they begin to see kind of the benefit of this bargain?” Wozmak asked. “... What is the county doing and what is our connection, ultimately, to the customers?”

Samuel Golding, president of Community Choice Partners, a consulting firm that works with governments to initiate community power programs, explained that customers’ experience of paying for electricity would look much the same. Bills would continue to be issued by the electric utility, which is Eversource, locally, he said.

Typically, an electric bill will contain two charges: one for delivery and one for supply. Generally, communities using a community power program still rely on the utility’s infrastructure to deliver power, he said; what changes is the supplier, which in this case would become Cheshire County.

Three NH police-reform bills become law

Gov. Chris Sununu signed three police reform bills into law Wednesday, fulfilling a handful of recommendations from the state police accountability commission — and falling short on a few.

Both Sununu’s administration and reform advocates said the new laws represent a significant step forward in police misconduct transparency, like publishing the state’s “Laurie List” of officers with credibility issues and opening police disciplinary hearings to the public. But critics said the legislature effectively “gutted” one of the bills, removing key provisions such as demographic data collection and mandatory implicit bias training for judges.

Composed of community and law enforcement leaders, the Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency commission was formed following last summer’s police killing of George Floyd, which sparked months of unrest and racial reckoning nationwide. Sununu endorsed all 48 LEACT recommendations shortly after they were released.

“The government is really good at waiting, but this was something that had to rise above that,” Sununu said before signing the bills Wednesday, remarking on the one-year timeline. “Ideas on a piece of paper are only as good as the piece of paper until you actually bring them to action.”

The trio of bills signed Wednesday covered nine recommendations when they were originally introduced. They ended up delivering six, including requiring municipalities to retain internal investigation records up to 20 years after an officer leaves and setting up a grant program for local police departments to apply for funds for body and in-car cameras.

“I think today marks an important milestone in our ongoing efforts to strengthen the relationships between the law enforcement community and the communities that law enforcement serves,” Attorney General John Formella said.

One of the most significant changes coming out of the bills has been in the works for several years: the state’s Exculpatory Evidence Schedule, previously known as the “Laurie List,” will now be available to the public. First established informally among prosecutors decades ago, the list details law enforcement officers whose credibility could be called into question during a trial.

Credibility issues might relate to a wide variety of actions, such as excessive force, sexual harassment, falsifying reports or lying in court. Names on the list will not be released for at least six months — the established period for officers to contest their inclusion.

Legal director for the ACLU of NH Gilles Bissonnette said his organization will be actively monitoring the implementation of the new law to ensure the process is correctly followed and the information is ultimately released.

The ACLU of NH and most of the state’s media organizations — including The Sentinel — sued the N.H. Department of Justice in 2018 to make the list public.

“There’s been exhaustive negotiations to try to come up with a process that works for everyone,” Bissonnette said. “Institutionally we’re proud of our role in ensuring that the public gets this information, and we’ll continue that role with respect to other police misconduct information.”

Police disciplinary hearings are also now public by law, with exceptions for certain confidential information, and law enforcement agencies are able to access information about a candidate for a law enforcement position from their previous employers.

The three recommendations that legislators removed from the bills were: mandating implicit bias and racial profiling training for judges; requiring law enforcement agencies to gather and make public demographic data for arrests, citations and stops; and including a person’s race on identification cards with the option for individuals to opt out.

“I do not think (the bill) was as powerful as it could have been for the community, I think with the gutting of the data collection in particular,” said Joseph Lascaze, the smart justice organizer for the ACLU of NH and a LEACT member.

Lascaze said gathering and making public data on law enforcement’s interactions with New Hampshire residents is a recommendation all members of LEACT agreed on — including law enforcement.

The idea is that when community members feel they have been targeted based on the color of their skin, demographic information about traffic stops, citations and arrests is there to determine if discrimination exists and how widespread it is.

“When we go to investigate and look at those instances and there’s no data ... it really hampers the process of establishing equity in that state and making community members feel as though they actually belong here,” Lascaze said. “For the legislature to essentially gut it out of the bill was a slap in the face.”

The data collection provision was amended in the Senate and replaced with a measure to create a committee to study the issue.

Eddie Edwards, assistant safety commissioner and a LEACT member, said data collection is a piece of police reform that needs more work.

“I think it’s important, but how we’re collecting that data — I think that’s where some of the stumbling blocks were,” Edwards said. “There’s a distinct difference between race and ethnicity, and collecting those data points is important, but how we do that without being intrusive or offensive is something that we need to take into consideration.”

Some of the recommendations remain to be completed, but “none of which are going to be left off the table,” Sununu said. The governor added that the police accountability commission will continue its work moving forward.

“The LEACT commission isn’t a one and done,” Sununu said. “The most important part of what this group has done is created something which is living and breathing and will forever live within the state to keep ourselves ahead of the game.”