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Sununu: Schools must offer at least two days in person, starting March 8
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New Hampshire public schools must offer at least two days per week of in-person learning starting March 8, Gov. Chris Sununu said Thursday.

“It isn’t just so the kids come back and have a more fuller, robust learning model. It really is for the behavioral and mental health — the isolation issues that so many of our students have been bearing with,” Sununu said, announcing the change at a news conference.

He said he would sign an executive order in the coming days mandating the change.

Sununu said about 60 percent of New Hampshire schools are already operating under a hybrid model, in which students come in some days and learn remotely on others. Another 35 percent to 40 percent are fully in person, and just a few are fully remote, he said.

In the Monadnock Region, nearly every district is back to at least some in-person learning after most went fully remote over the holidays. Winchester remains remote but intends to return to in-person instruction four days a week beginning March 8. Hinsdale went temporarily remote Thursday after learning of two student COVID-19 cases but plans to return to fully on-site instruction March 1.

Sununu said districts will still have some flexibility to close in response to cases in their schools.

“If schools … need to close for a day or two to clean or something like that, or temporarily if they have a cluster of illness or an outbreak, of course they’re allowed that flexibility,” he said.

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Winchester School to welcome kids on campus 4 days a week next month
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WINCHESTER — After more than three months of remote learning, students are scheduled to return to in-person classes four days a week beginning March 8, Winchester School Principal Valerie Carey announced at a school board meeting Thursday evening.

“In our last meeting, I was saying that it may be that at some grade levels, they can return four days a week, and at other grade levels they might only be able to return two days a week,” Carey said. “But our staff has really put the time in and put the work in to creating schedules and plans so that all of our grade levels can return four days a week.”

The majority of students will attend in-person classes Monday through Thursday, and learn remotely on Fridays, Carey said. Preschoolers and kindergarteners will come to school Tuesday through Friday, as they did before the school switched to remote learning in November. Families also can still choose for their children to learn fully remotely once in-person classes resume.

“We do have to remember that we still have to commit time to our remote learners,” Carey said. “And while we will have multiple teachers providing support to those remote learners, they still need some individual time or small group time with their teacher on those fifth days of the week.

“And so we have to make sure that we’re meeting everybody where they are, and the reality is that some of our students are at home.”

Winchester School, which enrolls about 440 students in preschool through 8th grade, transitioned from a hybrid model to fully remote instruction on Nov. 16, after Cheshire County eclipsed a seven-day rolling average of 10 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people, a tipping point laid out in the school’s reopening plan.

The school board voted to stick with remote instruction at its Jan. 7 meeting and to re-evaluate that decision at least at the first meeting of each month. After the last board meeting Feb. 4, the district sent out a survey to families asking whether they want their children to return to a hybrid model or remain fully remote. School leaders used that feedback to formulate the plan to bring students back to in-person classes four days a week next month.

The survey found that about 81 percent of the 270 respondents wanted to send their children back to school under a hybrid model, while 18 percent wanted to keep their children fully remote, and a small number wanted to choose another option, such as homeschooling.

The school board previously discussed the possibility of students resuming hybrid learning March 15, to give teachers more time to prepare for the switch after next week’s winter break. But Gov. Chris Sununu announced Thursday afternoon that he intends to sign an executive order requiring schools to offer at least two days of in-person instruction per week, effective March 8.

“It sounds like we don’t really have that decision to make, because March 8 is the day,” school board Chairwoman Lindseigh Picard said during the meeting Thursday evening.

As the district prepares to return to hybrid instruction, Carey said that staffing levels remain a challenge, since some teachers have medical conditions that prevent them from returning to the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For those staff who are not able to return for medical reasons, we have had to try to figure out how to fill those gaps,” she said. Specifically, the school is turning to certified interventionists, who normally work in small groups or one-on-one with students experiencing behavioral challenges, to teach some in-person classes.

“So I do want us to acknowledge that we’re making a concession here,” Carey said. “It’s a tradeoff. We think it’s an important tradeoff because we want kids here as much as possible, but just acknowledging that there will be some reduced interventionist capacity for the foreseeable future as we get back to this hybrid model.”

Overall, though, Carey said she and her staff are eager to welcome students back to school.

“So many of us are super, super excited,” she said. “We’ve been just waiting to get kids in this building.”

Before switching to remote learning last fall, Winchester School had been operating under a hybrid model in which students were split into groups that attended classes on campus and remotely on alternating days. High-schoolers from Winchester attend Keene High School, which operated fully remotely from Nov. 30 until Feb. 1, when the school returned to a hybrid model.

All other area districts have returned to some level of in-person instruction, after the vast majority of them switched to remote learning in response to the spike in COVID-19 cases during the holiday season.

The Monadnock Regional School District — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — is the only local district that has remained in a hybrid model through the entire academic year, though individual groups of students and schools have switched to remote learning at times due to COVID-19 cases within the schools. Hinsdale schools temporarily switched to remote learning Thursday after learning of two student coronavirus cases, and are scheduled to return to fully in-person classes March 1.

NH lawmakers debate banning schools from teaching about systematic racism and sexism
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CONCORD — New Hampshire lawmakers are debating a bill that would prevent educators from teaching about systemic racism and sexism in public schools and state-funded programs.

HB 544, titled an act “relative to the propagation of divisive topics,” seeks to limit public schools, organizations or state contractors from discussing topics related to racism and sexism, and would specifically ban teaching that the state of New Hampshire or the U.S. is racist or sexist. Lawmakers discussed the bill in a hearing of the Executive Departments and Administration Committee that began Feb. 11 and continued Thursday.

“This puts guidelines on what are the limits, especially under the auspices of the state apparatus, what are the limits in presuming that someone was born to be an oppressor or someone was born to be oppressed because of their sex,” said Rep. Keith Ammon, a Republican from New Boston, who introduced the bill. “If that’s the assumption we are going to make as a society, then we are never going to get to unity.”

Republican Reps. Glenn Cordelli of Tuftonboro and Jason Osborne of Auburn cosponsored the bill with Ammon.

The bill is an echo of a federal executive order issued by President Donald Trump in November 2020 that restricted federal institutions from using curriculum about systemic racism, white privilege and other race and gender bias issues. President Joe Biden rescinded the order on Jan. 20.

According to the bill text, topics that would be banned include ideas that New Hampshire or the U.S. is fundamentally racist or sexist, that individuals are inherently oppressive due to their race or sex, that individuals should feel discomfort or guilt on account of their race or sex, that meritocracy and “hard work ethic” is inherently oppressive, and or any other form of race or sex “stereotyping” or “scapegoating.” The bill addresses race and sex, but not gender.

In the Feb. 11 hearing, Ammon said he does not believe in systemic racism, and likened people who conduct diversity and inclusion trainings to “snake oil salesmen.” Ammon says the idea for the bill came from a professor in the University System of New Hampshire, although Ammon said he wouldn’t disclose the identity of the professor, because the unnamed individual is afraid of losing his or her job for advocating in favor of the bill.

In the Thursday hearing, 26 people signed up to testify, including state representatives, and local and national advocates, who spoke for and against the bill. Much of the discussion hinged on the pros and cons of critical race theory, a framework that examines U.S. society and culture through a lens of race, law and power, and acknowledges systemic racism as part of American culture.

Many of those who spoke in favor of the bill called critical race theory “indoctrination,” and claimed teaching it in schools promotes reverse racism.

Some of those who spoke in opposition to the bill said banning topics from classrooms is an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.

“The First Amendment protects that difference of opinion, where the government, I don’t think, should have the power to tell individuals — and in this case, state contractors — how they should speak within their companies,” said Gilles Bissonette, legal director for ACLU New Hampshire.

Others in opposition said teaching about systemic racism is important to help students understand how history has impacted the present.

“As an immigrant, as a person of color, I see already discrimination against me in the workplace, when I go out, people think it is right to tell me I don’t belong in this country because of my accent, or my skin color,” said State Rep. Maria Perez of Milford. “Why do we need another bill to give people the right to discriminate against them, and why don’t we let the teachers teach the kids that we all come from different backgrounds?”

Tensions were high during the hearing. At one point the committee chair, Rep. Carol McGuire of Epsom, admonished Concord resident Melissa Bernardin, who called the legislation “backward-thinking” and “intolerant.”

“I don’t appreciate you stating your opinions as facts quite that firmly, and I hope you’ll be more respectful to those white people in the audience, many of whom are offended if they are called racist without knowledge or cause,” McGuire said.

Others expressed concern that the bill inhibits state contractors and others outside education from being able to do their jobs. Michael Padmore, director of advocacy at New Hampshire Medical Society, spoke against the bill, saying that banning this kind of training would inhibit the work of physicians at state-funded health centers, who take training in how to combat unconscious bias.

“Many of the country’s medical associates have recognized that racism is a public health crisis,” Padmore said. “COVID has shown us irrefutable difference in health outcomes in New Hampshire. We must be able to understand and address these differences, known as health disparities. Training physicians and other health providers to understand the implications of racism and sexism on health is imperative to the ability to care for patients and improve health outcomes.”

Concord School Board member Jonathan Weinberg testified against the bill, criticizing the supporters’ understanding of critical race theory.

“You need to actually understand the fundamentals of critical race theory, not just look at a Fox News article or two,” Weinberg said. “We need to learn about complete histories, and not only from a single lens.”

If the bill passes committee, it will move to the House floor for a vote.

Frontline workers facing increasing stress and burnout as pandemic endures
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CONCORD — Over the last year, Marsha Davidson has faced countless heart-rending experiences.

Certain scenes stick in her head from her time as a psychiatric emergency room nurse at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. Once, she watched a woman emerge from a coronavirus fog, confused where she was and desperately looking for her husband who wasn’t allowed in due to COVID restrictions. Davidson tried to console her but found it hard to be a source of comfort wearing a respirator, a mask, goggles and face shield.

“It creates a heavy weight to bear,” she said. “I could share for a long time all these stories from patients and their families and things we’ve seen over the last year. I don’t think a shift goes by that I don’t hear a colleague share some real concerns and burdens of their emotional burnout and fatigue of what they’re dealing with.”

Frontline workers across the state are experiencing similar stressors, advocates said at a roundtable with U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan. As the pandemic wears on, first responders are facing a growing emotional toll and burnout.

Mark Newport, the chief of police at the Portsmouth Police Department, said many officers at first struggled with fear of the unknown— while most people were able to hide from the virus in their homes, officers were still on the streets, regularly coming in contact with others. As officers on his force began to fall ill with COVID-19, the fear became more tangible.

Newport said one of the greatest tools in recovering from the stressors like these is being able to take a break. He said the pandemic has all but ended vacation time for his officers.

“We have to come to work every single day without breaking,” he said. “We haven’t had the luxury in a year of having that time off.”

David Goldstein, the chief of police at the Franklin Police Department, said one of the primary concerns he hears from officers is bringing COVID-19 home to their family.

“What’s very important is that the recognition of these issues not disappear,” he said.

The N.H Department of Health has attempted to address this burnout and stress by rolling out a mental health hotline exclusively for frontline workers. Jenn Schirmer, the disaster behavioral health coordinator for the Department of Health and Human Services, hopes those in distress will be able to use the hotline to develop a plan for managing some of the most stressful parts of their job.

“It is just that sense of kind of like constant repeated exposure and worry and concern and fear that it just doesn’t end,” Schirmer said.

Dan Goonan, the fire chief at the Manchester Fire Department, said it’s not just the frontline workers who are impacted by the pandemic. Families of frontline workers bear some of the burden as well.

“We’re worried about bringing it home; we have family members that may be laid off; we have kids out of school. It’s just so much stuff going on, and it adds up,” he said. “You can see it on their faces that they’re just drained.”

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Well Sense Health Plan
One of NH's Medicaid plans drops CVS pharmacies from network
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One of New Hampshire’s Medicaid plans no longer allows enrollees to fill their prescriptions at CVS Pharmacy locations, the state health department confirmed Thursday.

The Well Sense Health Plan — which covers tens of thousands of Granite Staters as one of three private health insurance plans offered through the state’s Medicaid program — switched to a new pharmacy benefits manager late last year, which CVS doesn’t participate with.

“It was not our choice to be removed from WellSense’s network,” CVS spokesman Michael DeAngelis said in an email, “and we’re ... disappointed that we can no longer serve their plan members.”

Medicaid, funded through state and federal governments, covers medical costs for people of low income and resources. Just over 214,000 New Hampshire residents were enrolled as of Jan. 31, more than 14,000 of them in Cheshire County, according to data from the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services.

While Medicaid is publicly funded, the coverage in New Hampshire is provided by private entities that contract with the state.

Recipients choose which plan to be on, the state’s website says, and all the plans cover the same types of service. However, they may have different provider networks, as well as various extra incentives and programs.

The Well Sense plan’s shift to the company Express Scripts — which doesn’t include CVS Pharmacy in its network — to manage prescription drug benefits has affected about 8,000 of the 92,000 Well Sense members statewide, according to Kathy Remillard, spokeswoman for the state health department. These people were notified of the change by Express Scripts in November and December.

“We selected Express Scripts (ESI) as Well Sense Health Plan’s Pharmacy Benefits Manager based on the strength of its experience, cost effectiveness, and quality of services ...,” Richard Wolosz, a Well Sense spokesman, said in an email. “As part of the transition to ESI, we implemented the ESI Advantage Network, which includes several major chains and independent pharmacies, but does not include CVS.”

There are three CVS locations in the Monadnock Region — two in Keene (one of which is inside Target) and another in Peterborough.

Eleven of Cheshire County’s 13 pharmacies are covered still for Well Sense Medicaid recipients, according to Wolosz.

Statewide, in addition to many independent pharmacies, those covered include Genoa, Hannaford, Price Chopper, Rite Aid, Sam’s Club, Walmart and Walgreens.