The state board of education is set to hold a public hearing Wednesday to consider a proposal to remove remote learning as an option for schools when responding to COVID-19, but at least one local district opposes that plan.
The Monadnock Regional School District sent a letter late last month urging the state board of education to reject the new proposed rule, which would allow districts to implement distance education only in cases of inclement weather or when parents request it on an individual basis.
“As a District, we are entrusted to decide what is in the best interest of our communities on a day to day basis,” Superintendent Lisa Witte wrote in the letter, dated Oct. 25. “If that includes a temporary shift to remote learning in response to COVID-19, we must have the authority and responsibility to make those decisions.”
The district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — values in-person learning and does not plan to rely on distance education, the letter says, but the existing rule provides the flexibility the school board finds necessary to prioritize the health and safety of the community. The Monadnock board voted at its Oct. 19 meeting to send the letter to the state.
A week earlier, the Monadnock Regional Middle/High School transitioned to remote learning for three days after an uptick in COVID-19 cases combined with staffing challenges caused, in part, by quarantine and isolation requirements. Several other schools across the state have also made short-term switches to distance education due to an increase in coronavirus infections this academic year, including schools in Manchester and Raymond, according to media reports.
Monadnock’s letter also described a lack of collaboration between educators in the field and the N.H. Department of Education in drafting the new rule prior to its proposal. But in an interview with The Sentinel on Monday, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said it’s typical to seek input after the state proposes a new rule like this.
“This is the normal process for rule-making,” he said. “So there’s an opportunity for everyone to weigh in.”
The plan, which the state Department of Education proposed in September, is meant to be a sort of middle ground between the pre-COVID era that didn’t accommodate any kind of distance learning, and the universal implementation of distance learning last year Edelblut said.
“We introduced a rule that is more permissive than the circumstances that we had before COVID-19,” Edelblut said, “but not as permissive as the broadly expansive rule that we were adopting for operating during the middle of the pandemic and in the state of emergency.”
During the rule-making process, Gov. Chris Sununu declared a state of emergency and implemented an emergency rule similar to what the state board of education had been drafting, Edelblut said. The state of emergency lifted in May, and in July, the state board of education adopted the current rule, which allows districts to use in-person, hybrid or remote instruction.
“When we ended the state of emergency, what that basically did was it snapped us back to our pre-COVID rule, which did not accommodate any type of remote instruction during that period of time, and would have left us there,” Edelblut said of the current rule. “Because we were no longer in a state of emergency, we wanted to try and adopt a rule that would help facilitate good instruction for students and not move us back to where we were pre-COVID, which would have been highly restrictive.”
But now, the department believes requiring in-person instruction is best for students’ academic progress, mental health and to support parents who can’t stay home with students, Edleblut said.
After Wednesday’s hearing, the state board of education will take into account the public’s comments and make any changes warranted by those comments, Edelblut said. The board will act on the proposal at its December meeting, and the rule would then be passed to the Office of Legislative Services and Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules before it could be enacted in early 2022.
Members of the public who wish to submit written testimony to the seven-member state education board can email Amanda.Phelps@doe.nh.gov. The hearing is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. in Room 100 at the Walker Building, 21 South Fruit St., Concord.
The number of empty seats in the “mask required” section was a good indication of where the testimony was headed at Monday’s legislative meeting on medical intervention: Just a few seats were taken.
Nearly 60 people turned out for a public input session before the Committee to Examine the Policy of Medical Intervention Including Immunization, almost all of them there to oppose COVID-19 vaccines or mandates. The committee’s charge is broad — from looking at laws on involuntary emergency admissions and medical treatment of someone in custody, to childhood immunizations and a guardian’s medical decision-making. But the focus was on COVID-19, which Chairman Timothy Lang said will be the subject of 32 bills next session.
Most of the nearly 30 people who asked to testify voiced objections, calling mandates a violation of constitutional, religious, and medical rights. Some warned that “coercion” by mandate will lead to resignations and a worse workforce shortage.
“The Constitution guarantees all people the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” said Janice Desmaris, a former critical care nurse. “Taking a person’s job who will not consent to an experimental injection is a violation of the Constitution, making it illegal. Sovereignty over one’s own body is the highest priority.”
Over the last year, the public disagreements around COVID-19 have largely focused on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine; unfounded claims about the associated health risks; and mistrust in the drug manufacturers and government. As the federal deadline nears for health care workers, federal contractors, and large employers to be vaccinated, objections to the mandate have grown louder.
Hundreds turned out for a “medical freedom” march in Concord last month. And on Saturday, dozens of anti-mandate protesters gathered in Concord again, holding American flags and signs. One woman held a sign that read “Anti-Mandate, Not Anti-Vaxxer,” on the front. The back said, “They tried scaring you, bribing you, guilting you, shaming you, blaming you. Now they fire you.”
They denounced President Joe Biden for backing vaccine mandates and, in some cases, Gov. Chris Sununu, too, for not doing more to stop them. (Sununu has supported the attorney general’s decision to sign on to federal lawsuits challenging mandates for federal contractors and private employers.)
Dr. David Strang, an emergency medicine specialist from the Lakes Region, faulted Concord Hospital and Dartmouth-Hitchcock for implementing their own vaccine mandates ahead of the federal mandate.
“As physicians, we advise our patients that they have a right to consent or not consent,” he said. “If we mandate in defiance of individual choice and freedom, then we have destroyed the doctor-patient relationship.”
Strang continued, challenging the need for medical and religious exemptions from a mandate. “We already have an exemption,” he said. “That is, we are Americans. We have the God-given right to say no.”
Deborah Richardson, an Air Force veteran and nurse with a home health care and hospice agency, was hospitalized last year with COVID-19. After her discharge, Richardson opted not to get the vaccine because she was worried about side effects. She continued to refuse a vaccine after it was mandated for health care workers. She told the committee that when her religious exemption was denied and her argument that natural immunity was sufficient protection failed, she was terminated.
“To make people decide on their own health care versus taking this vaccine, is just not life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness,” Richardson said. “It goes against everything I volunteered to go into the Air Force for.”
While just a few people spoke in favor of the vaccine mandate during the meeting in the Statehouse, several mandate supporters gathered outside it, ahead of the meeting, holding signs that read, “Trust Science” and “Vaccines Save Lives.”
Dr. Randy Hayes, a retired family medicine doctor, was among them. “What really bothers me the most is that a vocal minority seems to be putting a priority on personal choice and freedom without acknowledging the equally compelling value of the common good,” he said. “And when people do that in the public health sphere to build their political careers, it is very threatening and very destructive.”
He objects, he said, to the characterization of a mandate as federal overreach. “Well,” he said, “750,000 people dead (from COVID-19 nationally) is overreach.”
From Dublin, Sao Paolo, Brussels, London and other cities around the world, international visitors spilled into U.S. airports Monday in joyous celebrations that marked the end of a pandemic-related travel ban that kept them separated from loved ones for more than 18 months.
“On behalf of the U.S. travel industry: WELCOME,” the U.S. Travel Association said in a tweet Monday morning. “Today marks a monumental and long-awaited day for travelers, long-separated friends and family who can now safely reunite with loved ones.”
The end of a 33-nation ban that kept most non-U.S. citizens out of the country took on a celebratory air Monday, throwing a lifeline to an industry seeking to rebound from the pandemic. It sparked reunions at international airports across the country, but comes as U.S. airlines — which have seen a surge in demand from domestic leisure travelers — are struggling to overcome staffing shortages ahead of the busy travel holiday season.
Earlier this month, American Airlines angered passengers after it canceled nearly 2,000 flights, citing staffing shortages and bad weather at its Dallas-Fort Worth hub. Southwest Airlines reported losing more than $75 million after it was forced to cancel more than 2,000 flights in October.
Scheduling meltdowns that began amid a summer travel boom have left passengers and observers questioning whether the industry is equipped to handle a continuing rise in passenger levels — and the added responsibilities of screening a growing number of international visitors.
Under the new requirements, airlines are responsible for verifying travelers’ vaccination statuses and ensuring negative coronavirus test results for those who are exempt from mandates. Carriers say they are prepared for the new responsibilities, adding that measures they have put into place — including digital tools that allow travelers to upload coronavirus test results and verify vaccinations — will smooth travel for customers. Several international airports also offer on-site testing, making it easier for travelers to meet U.S. testing requirements.
“Today marks a significant milestone in the progress of worldwide recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Nicholas Calio, president of airline trade group Airlines for America.
Henry Harteveldt, an industry analyst and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, said carriers will be able to handle the growth in international visitors without too much additional strain.
“For one thing, they do have the pilots and flight attendants trained and ready, though granted, they may need to bring more back,” he said. “The airlines are also not over-scheduling their long-haul route networks yet.”
Officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which handles international arrivals, said they were making preparations to handle the rise in visitors and were working to add staffing at key entry points. The agency warned that travelers should expect longer lines this week as those eager to reunite with family and friends begin to arrive in the United States.
Even so, it appeared that Monday’s reopening went relatively smoothly for airports across the country. Andrew Gobeil, a spokesman for Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport, the nation’s busiest airport and the world’s largest before the coronavirus pandemic, said operations were normal Monday.
In a statement, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas hailed the reopening as “a critical step to resuming normal travel.”
The day was filled with elation in the United States and elsewhere, including an unlikely partnership of competitors.
Rival carriers British Airways and Virgin Atlantic timed departures from parallel runways at London’s Heathrow Airport to have the first flights filled with previously barred travelers land stateside. Both flights arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and passengers were greeted by balloons and cheers as they exited the plane.
“Today is a time for celebration, not rivalry,” Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said in a statement.
At Dulles International Airport outside the nation’s capital, travelers reunited with grandchildren in the terminal or hustled out to see girlfriends and fiances waiting anxiously in cars idling at the curb.
Army officer Ben Bennett, 40, holding a rose and a Stars and Stripes balloon, waited for a girlfriend he had met while serving in Germany during the pandemic.
“I’m super excited to have her here,” Bennett said, on his feet and watching the arrival door.
He said they were planning to go to Florida and visit Disney World. But the wait dragged on while his girlfriend went through customs in a line she estimated at 300 people.
Bennett took a seat, eyes flitting from his phone to the door. Then, she was there. They embraced.
The travel ban’s lifting — which brought similar reunion scenes to international airports across the country Monday — has been a boost for the travel industry, both in the United States and abroad. Carriers on both sides of the Atlantic pushed for more than a year to end restrictions and repeatedly expressed frustration that U.S. borders remained closed, even as other countries opened to vaccinated Americans this summer.
But all of that was forgotten as the industry counted down the days for the ban to lift.
“While we have seen many countries reopen their borders to American visitors over the summer, our international customers have not been able to fly with us or visit the U.S.,” Ed Bastian, Delta’s chief executive, said in a statement. “All of that changes now.”
Under the new policy, most visitors from Europe, China, Brazil, India and South Africa can come to the United States as long as they show proof of vaccination and a negative coronavirus test. Children under 18 are not required to show proof of vaccination, but must be tested before they board flights.
Delta Air Lines said that in the six weeks after the Biden administration’s September announcement that it was lifting the travel restrictions, it saw a 450 percent increase in international bookings. American Airlines said demand from London’s Heathrow Airport and Brazil for this week were about 70 percent higher than the previous week.
United Airlines said bookings for transatlantic travel for November exceeded 2019 levels for the first time since the pandemic began.
The carrier’s first international flight of the day, from Dublin, touched down at Newark Liberty International Airport at 11:30 a.m., one of 33 scheduled United flights to arrive Monday in the United States. Of those, more than a half-dozen from countries previously covered by the ban were scheduled to land at Dulles.
Even as domestic travel began to recover this spring and some business travel resumed, many in the travel industry had said a full recovery wouldn’t be possible until the U.S. ended its ban on travelers from the 33 countries.
While carriers had been operating flights from several of the countries included in the ban, many seats that previously were empty suddenly were occupied Monday. Delta said many of its international flights were expected to be full, with high passenger volumes continuing for weeks.
The reopening, while welcome, may not be completely trouble-free, some caution.
“No one is expecting this to go without a hitch,” Harteveldt said. “We are only as good as the data and everyone is prepared for a stop-and-start environment, whether it’s their country or the U.S. If COVID cases increase beyond a certain level or vaccine rates don’t reach a certain level, you know that borders may be closed again.”
But those worries were far from the minds of those at Dulles, who waited anxiously for glimpses of their loved ones.
Maureen Watkins, 64, tearfully scooped up one of her two granddaughters and marveled at how they had grown since she saw them early last year.
“Gosh you’re heavy,” said Watkins who had arrived from London. Once it was clear the restrictions would lift, Watkins said she knew she wanted to be on the first flight.
“Every bit of me is just shaking with emotion,” Watkins said, as her son, Elliott, daughter-in-law, Chloe, and their daughters Isla, 4, and Elsie, 2, gathered in the arrivals area.
Maureen Watkins said she plans to stay for two months. Chloe Watkins said the plan is to “eat, drink and be merry.”
The senior-living provider poised to acquire Hillside Village, the cash-strapped retirement community on Wyman Road, plans to continue operations there without any major changes, a company spokesman said Monday.
That sale is set to be approved Nov. 19 after the nonprofit Prospect-Woodward Home, which opened Hillside Village two years ago, received no other bids for the facility before a court-imposed deadline late last month, according to Covenant Living Communities & Services spokesman Randy Eilts. The sale hearing, part of Hillside Village’s ongoing Chapter 11 bankruptcy case, had initially been scheduled for Monday but was recently postponed.
Based in Skokie, Ill., Covenant Living will purchase the Keene facility in a $33 million deal initially announced in August. The company, which operates 18 senior-living facilities nationwide, will honor all existing contracts with Hillside Village residents and staff, Eilts said Monday.
“Our goal is to continue their lifestyle and to make it as robust a senior-living community in the area as we possibly can,” he said.
Under the terms of the sale, any other entities would have needed to outbid Covenant for the 95 Wyman Road facility. A federal bankruptcy court in New Hampshire would have then held an auction among the various bidders this month.
That auction has been canceled, though, because Hillside Village drew no other offers, Eilts said.
The 222-unit facility — which offers a full continuum of health care, from rehabilitative services to 24-hour nursing care, and employs nearly 150 people — has struggled with low occupancy due largely to the COVID-19 pandemic, Prospect-Woodward officials said earlier this year.
Hillside Village residents pay an entrance fee that ranges from about $217,000 to $665,000, depending on the size of their apartment and their eligibility for a refund if they leave, as well as a monthly fee that averages $4,500. But officials suspended new move-ins and site visits by potential residents last year to comply with public-health guidance meant to curb viral spread, they told The Sentinel in February.
The financial issues caused Prospect-Woodward to miss a bond payment worth nearly $2 million on the Wyman Road facility earlier this year, the officials said. Tom Brod, a financial adviser to the organization, said in February that it had not yet repaid approximately $60 million in tax-exempt bonds that financed Hillside Village’s construction.
That prompted Prospect-Woodward to file for Chapter 11, which allows it to restructure bond obligations with court approval instead of permission from its bondholders. The organization selected Covenant Living from a number of bidders, Brod said previously.
A ministry of the Evangelical Covenant Church dating to 1886, Covenant Living serves 5,500 residents at retirement communities in nine states, according to an Aug. 30 news release announcing its deal to acquire Hillside Village. Those include facilities in California, Florida and Illinois, as well as one in Cromwell, Conn.
Eilts, the company spokesman, said Monday that Covenant Living has no immediate changes planned at Hillside Village. The transition to new ownership at the facility should be “fairly smooth” for residents and staff, he said.
“I think we’re just really looking forward to building relationships with the residents and employees there,” he said.
Hillside Village’s sale to Covenant Living probably won’t be finalized until early 2022, Eilts said, with a federal bankruptcy judge first scheduled to endorse that deal at the Nov. 19 hearing.
Nancy Crawford, a Spofford resident who chairs the Prospect-Woodward board of trustees, said Monday that Covenant Living “really stood out” among the Hillside Village bidders due to its focus on residents and employees, as well as its history of expanding operations. A visit by the company’s president and CEO, Terri Cunliffe, during which Cunliffe addressed a series of questions from Hillside Village residents, helped secure the deal, Crawford said.
“I think Covenant Living will be the next, best step for Hillside and the residents that live there,” she said.
The facility’s sale is also likely to resolve a $5.7 million lawsuit a general contractor brought against Prospect-Woodward two years ago, alleging that it hadn’t been fully paid for labor, materials and other services provided during construction, Brod said Monday.
That case, which was filed in Cheshire County Superior Court by the Keene-based MacMillin Co. and had been headed for arbitration, is now suspended due to the ongoing bankruptcy proceedings. (Prospect-Woodward, in a court filing, previously said its architect had suggested withholding a large payment due to “incomplete and defective work” by MacMillin.)
MacMillin President and CEO Don Wells could not be reached Monday afternoon for comment.
Brod told The Sentinel that Hillside Village’s bankruptcy case “should take care of all outstanding liabilities,” which also include bond-related debts and financial obligations to several subcontractors.
“We’re all very pleased about the way things are progressing,” he said.
After approval from the federal judge this month, officials with the N.H. Insurance Department and the state’s Charitable Trusts Unit would still need to authorize Hillside Village’s sale, according to Mark McCue, a Manchester health care attorney advising Prospect-Woodward. The deal would then require final approval from a New Hampshire probate court, which McCue said could happen in February.
“We should, realistically, be done with the court and regulatory approvals in February,” he said Monday. “… I don’t see any impediments to either regulatory review.”
This story has been updated to include comments from Nancy Crawford and Mark McCue.