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As COVID recedes, local schools plan for in-person learning in fall
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Although the summer is still young, school districts throughout the Monadnock Region have already begun planning for the 2021-22 school year.

And after three semesters dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led schools to switch to varying forms of remote and hybrid learning, local districts are planning for significantly more in-person instruction in the fall.

“As the pandemic continues to move in a downward trend, we are approaching the next school year with a much more ‘back to normal’ mindset,” Robert Malay, superintendent of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, wrote Monday in a message on the SAU website. “There will continue to be a top priority placed on the safety and well-being of our students and staff as well as those that enter our buildings moving forward.”

SAU 29 — which covers Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland — is scheduled to release a draft reopening plan by the end of the day Thursday, Malay said in an interview Wednesday. After that, families and staff in those districts will have until July 9 to submit feedback on the plan before SAU 29 releases the final version in mid-July, Malay said.

Other area districts are also preparing for more in-person classes in the fall. The Monadnock Regional School District — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — intends to return to full in-class instruction, according to the district’s reopening plan. The Monadnock school board approved the plan June 15, according to the minutes of that meeting.

Monadnock operated under a hybrid model for most of the previous year, with students attending school in person two days per week and learning remotely the rest of the week. Families also had the option of having their children learn fully remotely last year.

But according to the 2021-22 reopening plan, Monadnock will not continue to provide remote support to students in the fall. The district will make exceptions if any students need to quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure or infection, or if the state recommends a shift to remote learning due to a rise in coronavirus cases.

Overall, the plan for Monadnock — like several area districts — calls for flexibility based on the latest public health data and guidance from the state and federal government.

“While we would like to say everything will be ‘back to normal’ for our return to school in the fall of 2021, the reality is that we don’t really know for sure what ‘normal’ is going to look like in the future,” the Monadnock plan states. “Any plan we make must be fluid and adaptable, as updated guidance seems to be issued almost daily with local and state governments shifting policies and rules just as frequently.”

The ConVal School District’s reopening plan, which the school board approved at its June 15 meeting, takes a similarly flexible approach to its specific COVID-19 mitigation strategies like masking and physical distancing.

The plan is divided into four “phases” based on the level of COVID-19 transmission within ConVal’s nine communities — Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough, Sharon and Temple. In each of these phases, the plan calls for the district to follow the mitigation strategies recommended at the time by the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“So, while we’re not saying, hard and fast, these are the mitigation strategies we’ll have at each level right now, it is because we want to be able to look at this data and make an informed decision,” Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders said last week in a video posted on the district’s website.

She added that ConVal officials believe they will be able to begin the school year in the “blue phase,” which is the lowest level of community transmission and calls for minimal mitigation measures. But the district is waiting until closer to the beginning of the new year to make these final decisions, Rizzo Saunders said, so school leaders can take into account factors such as the spread of COVID-19 variants, state and local vaccination rates and the latest medical research on the novel coronavirus’ effects on children.

Under ConVal’s plan, students would learn in person when the district operates in the blue and green phases, which would be in effect during minimal to moderate COVID-19 transmission. Most or all classes would switch to remote in the yellow and red phases, when there is substantial or uncontrolled transmission.

Meanwhile, the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District is moving forward with a reopening framework that “features almost a complete return to normalcy,” Superintendent Reuben Duncan wrote in the plan, which the school board approved June 21. The district plans to offer five days a week of in-person instruction, and will drop its mask mandate in schools and on district property.

The mask mandate could return to specific classes or schools, or districtwide, “should there be an outbreak of COVID-19 or other highly contagious illness within the district or greater Jaffrey-Rindge community,” according to the plan.

In the meantime, the district is working to maintain at least three feet of physical distance between everyone participating in summer school programs. But, according to the plan, “with cases continuing to decrease and vaccination rates still increasing, the school district will determine over the summer if social distancing is needed in any settings” in the fall.

The Hinsdale School District also plans to return to full in-person instruction, according to a post from the school board on the district website. And though the district has not yet released a full reopening plan, the board wrote that Hinsdale schools will adapt as necessary.

“We will revisit this plan as needed and if circumstances change,” the board wrote, “we will be prepared to make adjustments to ensure, to the best of our ability, quality education for our students and the health and safety of our entire school community.”

Rain from one of Wednesday’s storms rolls over Walpole in this photograph by Langdon resident Sarah Gallagher. The storms varied in intensity depending on where you live in the Monadnock Region and statewide. At one point, 26,000 people were without power in New Hampshire due to storm damage. Looking ahead, an unsettled weekend may dampen the July 4th weekend.

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Revamped Keene Pumpkin Festival in the works for 2022
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After months of uncertainty over its future, the Keene Pumpkin Festival is slated to make a return in 2022.

Keene resident Lisa Scoville has spent the past several months working with other community members to relaunch the longtime local tradition after its previous organizers announced they’d no longer run the event. She and several others have stepped up as new board members for Let it Shine, the nonprofit that had been responsible for the festival in recent years.

Scoville, a native of North Carolina, said that while she hasn’t had a chance to experience a Keene Pumpkin Festival yet, she’s heard a lot from local residents about what they want to see when it makes a comeback.

“We want it to be something that involves the community,” Scoville said. “It got away from the community aspect for a while. I wasn’t here, but I was told to bring it back to what the community wants. They still want it downtown. It’s a great memory for a lot of people.”

Plans for the revamped festival are still in the works, according to Scoville, but she said it will hopefully feature live music, a chili cook-off, trick-or-treating and, of course, lots and lots of pumpkins. She noted that the board is still in possession of one of the large, triangular scaffolding fixtures that were focal points for the jack-o’-lantern display in the past.

City Councilor Mike Remy, who is also on the new Let it Shine board, said the event is being planned for next year due to the amount of effort needed to get the festival up and running again.

“The festival needs a lot of work,” Remy said, “and trying to get one ready for this year would be tough.”

Keene’s Pumpkin Festival dates back to the early ‘90s, according to its website, and grew to become known worldwide for setting, and then repeatedly breaking, the Guinness record for most lit jack-o’-lanterns in one place. But in 2014, out-of-control parties outside the festival gave rise to rioting, resulting in vandalism, injuries and dozens of arrests.

In April 2015, the Keene City Council voted not to grant Let it Shine a license to hold the event that October. In subsequent years, Let it Shine revived the festival, but on a much smaller scale than what it had been in the past. A separate festival was also held at the Cheshire Fairgrounds in North Swanzey and the original pumpkin festival was moved to Laconia in 2015.

Last year’s Keene Pumpkin Festival was canceled due to the pandemic, and in September, Let it Shine announced that board members were looking to pass the torch.

While organizers hope to bring back a fun event that can be enjoyed by the community, Scoville said, she doesn’t plan on going too big too fast, and they have no intention of breaking any world records.

“It needs to be a slow transition,” she said. “We need to keep the reins on it and learn from the past.”

Remy agreed, saying the goal is for a festival a bit larger than in recent years but not nearly as big as it was at its peak.

Scoville said she’s also interested in reaching out to local schools to get students involved with the festival. For example, she said, they could plant and tend pumpkins that could eventually be used as part of the jack-o’-lantern display, which would teach them a bit about botany and sustainability.

She added that she’d like to work with local businesses and nonprofits to find ways they could benefit from the festival as well.

The new board consists of several city councilors — Kate Bosley, Mike Giacomo and Remy — and a number of people who have little to no nonprofit experience but wanted to be involved with bringing the festival back to life, Scoville said. Tim Zinn, who was a member of the previous Let it Shine board, is also staying involved temporarily to assist with the transition.

Scoville said that anyone interested in participating in the new pumpkin festival is invited to reach out to the board to learn more about volunteer opportunities. While she said there aren’t any specific tasks for volunteers yet, people who are willing to contribute in the long-term would be a big help.

A Facebook inquiry seeking potential volunteers generated more than 100 responses, according to Remy.

Both he and Scoville said the new group of organizers has done a great job so far and is enthusiastic about bringing some new vitality to the beloved Elm City tradition.

“I’m excited to see [the festival] come back,” Remy said. “I think we have a really strong group of folks that are involved.”

Council unanimously approves $52.4 million for community mental health centers

New Hampshire’s Executive Council gave a green light to a broad expansion of the state’s community mental health centers Wednesday, finalizing a proposal that advocates have called “transformational.”

In a unanimous vote, councilors voted to devote $52.4 million in state and federal funds toward building out the 10 centers, which provide mental health services to low-income residents across the state.

The additional funding will allow the centers to expand their funding and build up mobile crisis response teams, which allow mental health professionals to respond to emergencies at home without the involvement of police or hospitals. The new services are expected to help 43,000 adults and children in the state, according to Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette.

The funds will essentially double the state’s annual allocation to each of the mental health centers, which include Monadnock Family Services in Keene, Riverbend Community Mental Health in Concord, the Seacoast Mental Health Center, the Lakes Region Mental Health Center, and others.

But the efforts to scale up services at those centers could face familiar challenges, from staff recruitment to historical difficulties finding partners for the mobile crisis units.

Ninety percent of the additional funds would come from state general funds, with 10 percent picked up by the federal government.

The contracts passed Wednesday without discussion.

Executive Council denies contract for rehabilitative program for health care workers

In a 4-1 vote, the Executive Council on Wednesday denied a contract for a rehabilitative program for health care workers following an outcry from the medical community in New Hampshire and beyond.

But the current contract, held by New Hampshire Professionals Health Program, is expiring, which left the council scrambling to find a solution and prevent a gap in potentially life-saving services for health care providers.

According to Councilor Cinde Warmington, a Concord Democrat, that interruption in services would have happened whether the council approved the contract on the table Wednesday or not.

“There is an interruption of services today even if we voted on this,” she said.

New Hampshire law requires the Board of Nursing to contract with an organization that runs a program for health care providers who are struggling with substance abuse and mental health. The program provider is charged with developing, administering, and monitoring a treatment plan.

But many in the medical community spoke in opposition when the Office of Professional Licensure and Certification awarded the contract to Parkdale Aftercare, a contractor based in Indiana that underbid the current in-state contractor, New Hampshire Professionals Health Program. The Executive Council still gets the final say on the contract, however.

“Now is not the time to transition to an out-of-state entity, which quite frankly lacks the ability to implement and fulfill the terms of this contract,” said Councilor Janet Stevens, a Rye Republican, before Wednesday’s vote.

Three other councilors agreed.

The council had voted down a similar contract with Parkdale last year in a 5-0 vote, which led to confusion among councilors about why the state office brought forward the contract again this year.

The Office of Professional Licensure and Certification sent a letter to the current contractor on June 29 informing the New Hampshire Professionals Health Program that it failed to comply with the contract by lobbying to keep it.

“The OPLC has learned that NHPHP sent an email to NHPHP participants asking those participants to contact New Hampshire’s executive councilors and lobby on behalf of NHPHP’s efforts to renew its contract with the OPLC,” says the letter, signed by Lindsey Courtney, executive director of the Office of Professional Licensure and Certification.

Deanne Chapman, the director of operations for the New Hampshire Professional Health Program, had sent a letter to program participants asking them to reach out to the Executive Council opposing the Parkdale contract. Courtney said this violated the confidentiality clause of the contract, but Warmington said that was a matter of opinion. Chapman could not be reached for comment.

Instead of granting the contract to Parkdale, the council gave New Hampshire Professionals Health Program the option to keep running the program “at risk,” which means it runs the risk of not getting repaid if a future contract isn’t approved.

The council plans to reimburse the program with a retroactive contract down the line. Stevens said she expects the item to get back on the council’s agenda in July.

According to Gov. Chris Sununu, it would take about 6 weeks before a new contract could be approved and go into effect. Sununu was skeptical about pursuing the “at risk” option, since it would put the state in an unfavorable negotiating position with the vendor.

Councilor David Wheeler, a Milford Republican, was the sole vote in favor of granting the contract to Parkdale.

Opponents of the Parkdale contract pointed to decades of trust the in-state program has built. They criticized a potential conflict of interest if the contract with Parkdale was approved, since Parkdale is also a treatment center and would potentially handle referrals, treatment, and monitoring.

“It’s really troublesome for a number of reasons,” Warmington said in an interview.

“This can really derail people,” she said. “A lot of their safety net is in this program.”

She said that pulling that safety net from underneath them would be detrimental. The program is both a public health measure and a way of providing potentially life-saving services to health care workers.

Warmington and other councilors were inundated with concerned calls from the medical community leading up to the vote. Members of the board of medicine, chief medical officers, the nurses association, and the Federation of State Physician Health Programs all opposed the Parkdale contract.

“They’re very upset,” said Warmington.

“The hospital and board need to have confidence in the program that they’re using,” she said.

Because the program determines when health professionals are ready to go back to work, that trust is crucial.

“When hospitals and colleagues are concerned that a health professional may be impaired, they make a referral to NHPHP knowing they can trust them to get it right,” Chris Bundy wrote in an email to the councilors. Bundy is a doctor and president of the Federation of State Physician Health Programs.

“When NHPHP endorses a rehabilitated health professional back to practice under monitoring, they know that the health professional is safe,” he said.

Bundy pointed to New Hampshire Professionals Health Program’s 30-year track record. Parkdale, in contrast, lacks this proven record of accountability and trust, he said.

Conflict of interest?

Concerns were also raised about a potential conflict of interest since Parkdale is a treatment provider, meaning it could refer patients to its own treatment center.

Of the two bids the Office of Professional Licensure and Certification received, the Parkdale contract was the cheapest. Parkdale bid $2.125 million for a 5-year contract. New Hampshire Professionals Health Program put in a bid for $4 million.

“They’re the low bidder, but this also could be a feeder program for them,” Warmington said. During Wednesday’s council meeting, Warmington said the conflict should disqualify Parkdale from bidding.

Others in the medical community share the concern.

“Parkdale provides evaluation and treatment for health professionals. This is a direct conflict of interest,” Bundy wrote in an email to the councilors.

Bundy said nothing in the contract would prevent Parkdale from requiring New Hampshire professionals to use their evaluation and treatment services.

“It is entirely possible that they have underbid the contract precisely because they intend to use the New Hampshire program as a referral stream for their treatment center,” he wrote. And he encouraged elected officials to consider the value of dollars they spend on the program.

New Hampshire Professionals Health Program, he said, “delivers Lexus service at Toyota cost.”

“With a health care workforce reeling in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is not the time to interrupt its safety net,” he said. “The people of New Hampshire and its health care workforce deserve the outstanding program that is already in place.”