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SAU 29 shares final reopening framework to guide member schools

Students, families and staff at schools in N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 will know in the next two weeks how they will return to class in the fall.

SAU 29 on Monday released a final version of its school reopening framework, which plans for three possibilities for the coming academic year: in-person instruction, remote learning or a hybrid of the two. The guidelines cover possibilities ranging from alternating groups of students receiving in-person instruction in a hybrid model to limiting restrooms to one student at a time and making hallways one-way, where possible.

Schools in the Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland districts now will use this 23-page document to develop their own specific reopening plans, which will be finalized the week of Aug. 3, according to SAU 29 Superintendent Robert Malay.

“I need to stress once again, this is not the decision point people may be looking for at this time, but the roadmap that will help guide us on what those specific procedures/protocols will look like,” Malay wrote Monday in a message on the SAU 29 website.

Malay added that universal policies, which will apply to all SAU 29 schools, will be released later this week. Schools will finalize their own specific reopening plans and present them to the appropriate school board during the week of Aug. 3. Those plans, Malay stressed, will be based on the most up-to-date epidemiological data, guidance from health care professionals and directives from the state government.

Other school districts throughout the Monadnock Region are in various stages of their own reopening plans, which also will be finalized in the coming weeks. Public schools statewide transitioned to remote learning in mid-March due to concern over the COVID-19 pandemic, and remained that way through the end of the school year.

SAU 29’s final framework comes almost a week after Gov. Chris Sununu unveiled New Hampshire’s school reopening guidance, which largely leaves final decisions, like whether or not students and teachers will be required to wear masks in class, up to local school districts.

The state’s guidelines were designed to be flexible, Sununu said, but the plan has drawn some criticism — specifically from Democrats in state government and the New Hampshire chapter of the National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union — for being too vague.

“We all have opinions on what the guidance did and what the guidance did not provide for individual schools and districts,” Malay wrote Monday. “Our task now is to take our framework, the guidance from the State of New Hampshire, and the most current guidance from health officials [from the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC] to create our specific procedures and protocols for the opening of the new school year.”

Sununu also announced last week that public school staffs would get three extra days at the beginning of the school year to prepare for their own COVID-19 protocols. That means SAU 29 schools will start on Monday Aug. 31, instead of Wednesday Aug. 26, Malay said.

In the meantime, SAU 29 school leaders will continue the “complex conversations” necessary to synthesize guidance from a wide variety of sources and produce building-specific reopening plans, according to Malay.

“I can assure you of two things along this line, first and foremost, all specific procedures and protocols will be centered on student and staff safety and well-being, [and], two, there likely is nobody that wants to get this step completed more than the people that are working on it,” Malay wrote.

For now, the SAU 29 guidelines call for limiting large gatherings and close contact in school buildings with measures like staggering dismissal times for different groups of students and maximizing the space between desks, all of which will be required to face the same direction in classrooms. Specific decisions on social distancing and personal protective equipment will be based on “guidance from health officials,” according to the framework document. Schools also may consider using outdoor space.

The SAU 29 framework is based on the work of three focus groups, which began meeting in early June and concentrated on academics and instruction, student and staff services, and operations and logistics, respectively. These focus groups, made up of staff members from SAU 29 districts, designed a survey that garnered 2,681 responses over the course of one week in mid-June.

Those responses, along with a sample of school reopening plans from around New Hampshire and other states, serve as the basis for a draft reopening plan, which was released July 6. SAU 29 then collected feedback on that framework via an online survey, and incorporated those responses, and the state’s guidance, into the final plan released Monday.

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National Guard aid in NH COVID-19 efforts debated

The question of how long hundreds of Army and Air Force National Guard personnel will continue to aid the state’s COVID-19 efforts, and who will pay them if they do, is getting more heated as New Hampshire joins 30 other states and territories asking for federal support to continue until Christmas.

In early June as many as 800 National Guard soldiers, airmen and civilian staff were running or helping with eight projects around New Hampshire. This has scaled back as the pandemic has eased in the state. On Thursday, the National Guard stopped helping the state’s Employment Security call center handling jobless benefit claims. But Guard members are still operating drive-through mobile testing sites, the Concord warehouse for distribution personal protective equipment, and mobile food pantries.

The work is being done on top of regular training and duties. About 2,700 National Guard soldiers, airmen and civilian workers are in the state, according to Lt. Col Gregory Heilshorn, spokesman for the National Guard.

Normally when the National Guard is called up under a governor’s emergency order, the state pays the bill but under what is known as Title 32, the federal government is picking up the tab through Aug. 21. Gov. Chris Sununu has previously asked that this be extended through September, and last week asked for funding to keep up to 400 personnel through Christmas to help respond to COVID-19.

Similar requests have been made by governors in 31 states and territories including Vermont, according to a story in Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper.

As of mid-July, it said, there are about 29,700 Guard troops deployed across the country for coronavirus relief. The paper said this was the largest use ever of the Guard in noncombat operations.

Master Sgt. Michael Houk, a Pentagon spokesman, told Stars and Stripes that “defense officials are continually assessing governors’ needs during the pandemic.”

State takeover of the deployment would end troops’ eligibility for benefits such as health care and access to the GI Bill or ability to seek disability through the Department of Veterans Affairs if injured on state orders, the paper wrote.

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Spectrum eyes grant to extend broadband to rural Keene

Spectrum is seeking CARES Act funding to connect four under-served streets in Keene to high-speed Internet.

The telecommunications company has applied for a $189,750 grant through New Hampshire’s Emergency Broadband Expansion Program, City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said in an email Monday. If its application is approved, it would mean that 76 homes on Hurricane, Daniels Hill, Langley and Chesterfield roads that have had difficulty getting online would finally have a more reliable connection.

These streets are all on the western side of the city, with the latter three in Keene’s southwestern corner.

“This would be a big deal for those neighborhoods,” Dragon said Thursday, during a meeting of the City Council held via Zoom. “They have had some real challenges … connecting their children to education and connecting to their work.”

She said Monday that some portions of the streets in question do have access to high-speed Internet, but others don’t.

During the council meeting, Dragon encouraged residents in these neighborhoods to reach out to the Governor’s Office For Emergency Relief and Recovery to advocate for the project.

The $50 million Emergency Broadband Expansion Program was announced by Gov. Chris Sununu in June and is funded via the federal CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion aid package signed into law by President Donald Trump in mid-March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

School and business closures related to the outbreak have forced students and many workers to adapt to remote learning and working environments, which has highlighted gaps in Internet availability. Telemedicine has also been a primary concern, as patients look for ways to follow social-distancing protocols while also staying in touch with their physicians.

“[The CARES Act money] is really designed to get out and really provide some relief to folks that have been affected by COVID, be they businesses or nonprofits,” Sununu said in June after announcing the program. “Areas where we clearly need to make investments to help make sure that we’re closing those gaps that may have either been exacerbated by, or made more problematic through, the COVID crisis.”

The program requires the projects to support Internet speeds of 25 Mbps minimum for downloads and 3 Mbps minimum for uploads.

Spectrum spokeswoman Heidi Vandenbrouck on Tuesday confirmed the company has filed the grant application to extend services to the four city streets.

“We will provide our services to those areas should the grant be awarded,” she said in an email.

Mayor George Hansel said Monday that getting these areas of Keene connected has been a struggle for some time, and the city has been looking for ways to improve the situation.

Both he and Dragon said those neighborhoods don’t have the same Internet access as other parts of the city because low population levels make them less appealing for providers to build out their infrastructure.

“Those are very sparsely populated streets,” Hansel said. “They don’t meet the calculation usually used by providers to install the last mile of broadband.”

Hansel said Assistant City Manager Rebecca Landry pointed out the potential project to Spectrum, which then applied for the grant following her recommendation. While the city is not directly involved in the grant application, he said officials will continue to advocate for the needs of the community and provide any necessary information.

The application was submitted in early July, but so far there has been no word on whether it’s been accepted, according to Dragon. The governor’s website indicates that the anticipated start time for contracts is mid-July.

“The program does require that projects be complete before the end of this calendar year,” she said. “So we expect to learn more soon.”