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Keene schools return with a familiar mix of excitement, nerves, COVID-19 protocols
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Just shy of an hour into the first day of school Wednesday morning, Franklin Elementary School 4th-grade teacher Karen Gianferrari took her class outside for a mask break.

After a few minutes of stretching their legs on the newly repaved parking lot outside the Keene school, Gianferrari’s 17 students gathered in the corner, where she told them all to spread out their arms and take a big step back before sitting down in a socially distanced circle under a colorful homemade banner reading, “Welcome Back! We are SO HAPPY that you are here.”

Then, Gianferrari had the kids partake in a pretty normal first day activity: introducing themselves and telling their classmates one thing about them.

“My name is Hansithaa, and I’m obsessed with dragons,” Keene resident Hansithaa Sreenath said as a grin grew across her face.

Activities like these will be common throughout the first few days of school, Principal Erik Kress said, not only to help students and teachers get to know each other but also to allow kids to readjust to school and continued COVID-19 protocols like masking indoors and physical distancing. Even with these health and safety measures still in place, Kress said he was excited for the first day of school.

“I think, outside of the facemasks, it feels like a completely normal year — the excitement this morning, seeing the kids come in,” he said. “... As weird as it sounds, it feels normal.”

This return to some semblance of normalcy is a welcome change for Hansithaa, who said she did not like learning remotely when Keene schools operated under a hybrid model for most of last year.

“It was slightly boring because instead of going to school every day and actually doing something, you were basically just stuck and home and not knowing what to do,” she said.

Hansithaa’s classmate, Gretchen Bettler of Keene, agreed and said she often had to do remote school work in the same room where parents worked, making classes more difficult. At the beginning of this year, Gretchen said she was excited and nervous.

“Excited because I got the teacher I wanted,” she said. “And nervous just because it’s the first day of school.”

About a mile away, at Wheelock Elementary School, Principal Patty Yoerger was feeling the same mix of emotions as she welcomed students back.

“Well I’ve been up since about 4. It’s just the ‘back to school’; it’s anxiety but it’s excitement,” said Yoerger, who is starting her 28th year as an educator. “... And after all these years — I’ve been doing this a while — the first day of school is still that ‘hard to fall asleep, early awake’ and just full of energy and excitement. It’s what we live for.”

Like Franklin, Wheelock is starting the year with a variety of health and safety measures designed to protect staff and students, who are not yet eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. In addition to masking and distancing, Yoerger said schools are emphasizing the need for parents to keep kids home when they’re sick, with the ultimate goal of keeping students in class for as much time as possible.

“Our first priority is five days of in-school learning,” Yoerger said. “I really think that having the kids in that routine and that consistent environment is important.”

Kim Clark, who teaches 4th- and 5th-grade band at Wheelock, where her daughter Ellie is in 3rd grade, said she is grateful to begin the new year with full in-person instruction.

“[I’m] hopeful that we can stay in person five days a week,” Clark said. “I feel good about our plan. I think we’re putting safety measures in place to help, and we’re used to it. We did it last year, we know what to do, and we know what works.”

Amanda Short of Keene, whose twins Colin and Alexis started 3rd grade at Wheelock Wednesday, said she also hopes for a sustained return to full in-school classes.

“I’m hoping they’re here for the long haul, for the full five days, every day this year. I think that’s what everyone’s hope is this year. … Last year was a tough year for these kids,” Short said as she and her husband, Jason, dropped off the kids. “... I think the schools do a great job with keeping the kids safe. So, I know that they have the kids’ best interest in mind.”

And as the school year progresses, Kress, the Franklin Elementary principal, said he hopes elementary schools like his can safely reinstate activities like field trips, assemblies and all-school sing-alongs, all of which were absent last year due to coronavirus concerns.

“So I’m most excited, if we can stay safe, bringing back things to make school complete, if you will, and slowly building those parts back in,” Kress said. “Because school last year felt like, ‘I go to math class. I go to reading class. I log on to go to art class online.’ It was very mechanical and … it just didn’t feel good. So, I just want kids to feel like it’s a complete program, if we can do that.”

Wednesday marked the first day of classes for all schools in N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 — which covers Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland. Moving forward, Superintendent Robert Malay said Unit 29 schools will continue to follow guidance from the state health department to help ensure students can safely remain in classes five days a week.

“I think there’s always going to be a concern, most especially when transmission rates are where they are right now, which is substantial,” Malay said. “So there should be some concern, but we’re going to follow the guidance from [the Department of Health and Human Services] so we can do what we do well, which is the teaching and learning piece.”

COVID cases on the rise among state’s school-age children

As New Hampshire schools reopen and their masking policies remain controversial, positive COVID-19 tests among school-age children, most of whom are not eligible for vaccination, are climbing.

Between Aug. 1 and Aug. 30, the most recent dates available, positive tests among 0- to 9-year-olds increased by 663, for a total of 6,410 since the pandemic began. For people ages 10 to 19, there has been an increase of 759 positive tests, for a total of 13,381. (The DHHS dashboard does not report the numbers for only children under 18, which more closely counts the school-age population.)

Both are a fraction of the overall population for both groups: According to recent census data, there are 257,000 people in the state under age 18. Specific age categories were not available. According to the dashboard’s vaccination page, nearly 47,680 residents ages 12 to 19 have gotten one. (The vaccination page also does not report numbers for only children 12 to 18, nor does it calculate the percentage of fully vaccinated people among that age group.)

In an Aug. 30 release, however, the state cautioned that the number of positive tests among children may be somewhat higher because several cases remain under investigation. Additionally, positive test results do not include children who are infected and have not been tested.

The state Department of Health and Human Services has emphasized continued masking even for those who are vaccinated as a measure to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But the state has left masking policies and other COVID-19 safety protocols, such as social-distancing standards, to local school districts.

Doing so has also shifted the debate to the local level, creating controversy in both schools that require masks and those that make them optional. The New Hampshire Union Leader reported Wednesday that four more school districts are facing lawsuits over mandating masks, joining others that faced similar suits last year.

Keene elections
Four newcomers, one recent city councilor, among those seeking Keene seats
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Mike Giacomo, a former city councilor who recently resigned his Ward 3 seat after moving out of his district, has confirmed that he hopes to rejoin the council as an at-large member.

Giacomo stepped down in July after moving from his home on Union Street to a house on Hurricane Road, which is in Ward 5. Giacomo said shortly before his resignation became official that he had no immediate plans to run again, but that after taking some time to consider it, he said he decided to give it a shot.

“I did some thinking — this was the plan all along — to give it some thought, take a few months and see how I feel,” Giacomo said. “I’m feeling pretty good and pretty inspired. I’d like to continue helping the city.”

He said if elected to the two-year at-large term, he would essentially be able to make up for the two years of his previous term that he had to give up due to his move. He said he felt he’d developed some good momentum at the start of his last term but that it had been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and he’s looking to get back to work.

If elected to the council, Giacomo said he wants to focus on the city’s efforts to bounce back from the pandemic, particularly as it relates to stabilizing small businesses. He said the city has loosened restrictions to help accommodate options like outdoor dining, and Giacomo said the city should continue moving in that direction to provide businesses with some flexibility to keep them afloat.

“We need to help the businesses that are still very, very much struggling financially,” he said.

All five of the council’s at-large seats are up for grabs this year, with all incumbents aside from Councilor Stephen Hooper planning to seek re-election. Hooper said he will be leaving the council after his term expires to work on a Mount Monadnock documentary which he’s been involved with for nearly a decade and is nearing completion.

The only other non-incumbent who has filed to run as a councilor at-large is Jodi Newell.

Meanwhile, another newcomer, Ryan Clancy, has filed to run as a Ward 2 councilor, challenging longtime Ward 2 Councilor Mitch Greenwald. Clancy, a Portland, Maine native who works as the audience services manager at The Colonial Performing Arts Center, has lived in Keene for five years.

If elected, Clancy said his priorities would include promoting transparency and communication among city groups. He said the housing crisis in Keene is also something he’s been watching, and he would like to help.

“We need more affordable and accessible housing in Keene,” he said, “especially for young families and young people.”

He also said he’d like to help bridge communication between the city and school district, saying that part of bringing young families to the area is having good schools. He added that with one of the highest property-tax rates in the state, Keene schools should rank higher than they do.

In Ward 3, Bryan Lake has again decided to throw his hat into the ring. Lake, a lifelong Keene resident who works as a senior analyst at C&S Wholesale Grocers, entered the race to fill a Ward 3 vacancy earlier this year after former Councilor Terry Clark resigned in February, but the council chose to appoint Andrew Madison to the seat.

“Since the last time I filed to fill a vacancy, I’ve had the opportunity to have a seat on Keene’s Energy & Climate Committee and enjoyed the work that we’ve been doing there,” Lake said Wednesday in an email. “I think I can continue to bring good ideas to the City and tackle a range of topics if I’m elected to the Council.”

When he ran earlier this year, Lake said that if elected, he would like to focus on boosting civic participation, maintaining the city’s recreational assets and responding to legislative activity taking place in Concord that could negatively impact the people of Keene. He said he’s also now interested in tackling the city’s housing shortage and high tax property-tax rate, as well as maintaining Keene’s roadways and sidewalks.

There will be two Ward 3 seats to fill during this year’s election. Madison is running to be formally elected to his seat, while a special election is being held to replace the Ward 3 seat vacated when Giacomo moved. The council will appoint someone to fill the vacancy at its meeting later this month and the appointee will have to run again in the general election to retain the seat. Lake has filed for both races.

He raised a question about whether it was good for the council to fill the vacancy by appointment so close to the election, saying it makes someone an incumbent, and incumbents often have an advantage over challengers at the polls.

According to Mayor George Hansel, city staff are asking those interested in running for Giacomo’s vacant seat to file during the week-long time frame when the general election’s filing period and the special filing period for the vacancy are both active. That time frame runs through Sept. 7. But filing for Giacomo’s seat is actually open until Sept. 13.

Otyher than Ward 1 Councilor Janis Manwaring, who said she is stepping back to allow some fresh faces to serve on the council, all other incumbent ward councilors have announced they intend to seek re-election.

Meanwhile, Mark Zuchowski of Ward 4 has entered the race for a two-year term as mayor, declaring his candidate by email on Tuesday. Zuchowski, a retired electrical engineer, moved to Keene nearly six years ago from his hometown of Hadley, Mass. He holds a a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s in electrical and computer engineering, both from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

If elected, he’d like to serve as “the people’s mayor,” Zuchowski said. He added that he’d have an open-door policy and would invite all people of Keene to come to him with their concerns and questions.

“I will sit one-on-one with people and ask them ‘what do you want to do to improve Keene?’ and come up with solutions,” he said, adding that he would then present those potential solutions to the council.

In addition to working directly with constituents, Zuchowski said he’d also like to prioritize working with veterans and controlling the spread of misinformation — particularly as it relates to the pandemic.

Hansel has not yet filed to run for re-election but said he intends to. On Tuesday, the mayor tweeted that he was planning to take a two-month break from his duties as host of “The Weekend” on WKBK in order to focus on his re-election campaign.

People interested in running in this year’s municipal election can file to do so until Sept. 7, or Sept. 10 for those filling by petition. Candidates can file in the City Clerk’s Office either by declaration, which includes a $5 filing fee for the mayor’s seat or $2 for all other positions, or by petition, which allows them to bypass the fee if they can provide signatures from 50 registered Keene voters.

Keene’s primary election is scheduled for Oct. 5, and the general election will be Nov. 2.

Interest in state's ‘education freedom accounts’ far beyond estimates

Anthony Henry isn’t sure where he wants to go to high school in a year. But he knows he doesn’t want it to be a public school.

The Derry native, who is entering 8th grade this year, says he’s been disheartened by content taught in his middle school — from videos diving into the background of Karl Marx to economics lessons on alternative theories to capitalism.

“I think they’re doing some slanted stuff politically,” he said.

Those objections are enough to make Anthony and his father, Charlie, interested in leaving the public school system for a private high school.

“As just a working guy, he’s considering going private, and I have to consider how do I pay for that,” said Charlie Henry, standing outside a political event headlined by former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and former secretary of education Betsy DeVos in Concord Tuesday.

Neither Anthony nor Charlie were aware of a brand-new program in the state — passed in the budget in June — that lets certain families access a “savings account” of state education funding that can put about $5,000 toward private school tuition, homeschooling, or school costs.

“I don’t know enough about it,” Charlie Henry said. “... I’m more here so I can find out.”

But as the “education freedom account” program begins to take off, one thing is clear from early numbers: Plenty of other families in the state are aware.

Just two months after the program was passed into law, the state’s education freedom accounts have attracted a lot of interest, New Hampshire officials say.

The N.H. Department of Education is preparing to accommodate between 1,000 and 1,500 students into the program, Commissioner Frank Edelblut said in an interview with WMUR Sunday, far above the number of students expected when lawmakers crafted the budget.

The surge in interest has been called a triumph by supporters of the program, who say the savings accounts will create new educational opportunities for students from lower-income backgrounds who aren’t succeeding in public school.

But critics say the program as designed amounts to an uncapped financial burden on the state, and that the initial take-up figures indicate that it could be costlier than advertised.

Lawmakers budgeted $129,000 for education freedom accounts in the fiscal year 2022 spending plan, which covers the next school year. At an average award amount of $4,600, that amount of money would pay for around 28 students for the year.

If 1,500 students participated in the first year, the program would cost about $6.9 million to the state budget, opponents of the law note.

“No public school district would be able to come in this much over budget, and (Gov. Chris) Sununu and Edelblut should hold school privatization programs to the same standard,” said Megan Tuttle, the president of the National Education Association in New Hampshire.

The numbers given by Edelblut are estimates based on the number of families that have expressed interest; exactly how many students apply and are approved in the first quarter won’t be known for months.

The education freedom accounts are being administered by the Children’s Scholarship Fund, a nonprofit organization that was chosen as the sole organization to administer the accounts — and which receives 10 percent of the value of the accounts in administration fees. Under rules passed by lawmakers and the State Board of Education in August, the scholarship fund must file a report with the Department of Education in October indicating the number of applications that were approved for the first months of the program.

But even as applications continue to flow to the Children’s Scholarship Fund, lawmakers on the left and right are working on dueling proposals to alter it.

Republicans are already considering expanding the program. House representatives are exploring filing a bill that would either raise or eliminate entirely the income limit for eligible families, multiple lawmakers said. Currently, the income limit is 300 percent of the federal poverty level, which amounts to $79,500 in combined income for a family of four.

Raising or eliminating the cap could allow vastly more New Hampshire families to take up the program.

Rep. Jess Edwards, an Auburn Republican, said the current income limits were designed to start the program cautiously.

“Because it’s a new program, I think we behaved judiciously by limiting the eligibility to 300 percent of the (federal) poverty level,” Edwards said. “You don’t want to start a brand-new program on full throttle.”

But, Edwards added: “We’re anticipating the possibility of expanding the program beyond the 300 percent poverty limit, so that we can debate it next spring, where we have data coming out of the fall to see what the uptake was.”

Edwards said Republican lawmakers have been discussing expanding the program as they consider the slate of legislation they will introduce.

But Rep. Glenn Cordelli, the vice chairman of the Education Committee and one of the architects of the education freedom accounts law, said he isn’t sure expansion is on the table so soon.

“There are lawmakers who are hearing from their constituents about the cap,” he said Tuesday, referring to frustration from some parents that they are not eligible for the grants due to their income level. “I don’t know if there will be any legislation introduced about that. We’ll wait and see. I am happy with letting the program roll out and get settled in for a year before we do anything there.”

Lawmakers have between Sept. 13 and 17 to file “legislative service requests” — mini-forms delivered to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services that indicate bills they would like to be drafted in time for the start of the next legislative session in January.

Meanwhile, Democrats — who have cited concerns over the costs to the state — want to move the program in the other direction. Pointing to the unexpected surge in interest in education freedom accounts this summer, Rep. David Luneau, a Hopkinton Democrat, said he would file legislation this month to limit the number of awards that can be issued each year.

“Sununu’s school voucher scheme takes money from our public schools and sends it to private, religious, and home schools,” Luneau said in a statement. “Now we are being told that millions more than expected in taxpayer dollars will be siphoned off for these vouchers. We need to put a cap on program costs based on what was presented to the Legislature by the commissioner, so that New Hampshire can plan appropriately.”

Even in its early stages, New Hampshire’s law has served as a backdrop for national efforts to expand the “school choice” movement.

On Tuesday, Pompeo and DeVos, both former Trump administration officials, came to make their pitch that the New Hampshire program, noted by both critics and proponents as being the most expansive program of its kind in the country, represents a way forward for education.

Republicans thronged the Capitol Center for the Arts Tuesday, including Edelblut and lawmakers who helped pass the education freedom accounts law.

During a two-hour event sponsored by the conservative advocacy organization Club for Growth, DeVos and Pompeo applauded New Hampshire’s initiative. And they framed the effort to allow public money to help students attend private schools as essential to closing the country’s achievement gap when compared to other developed countries.

“Kids that come from parents who have resources can often make choices about their children,” Pompeo said. “One of their parents can stay home. People can send their kids to a school that teaches their children what they want them to learn. What New Hampshire has done, and what we are advocating for here today, is to give those other parents, those parents who don’t have all of those options, the same opportunity. The same chance.”

But to Luneau and other Democrats, the potential benefits of the program are outweighed by the cost.

“All New Hampshire students need to be able to count on a strong, robust public education,” Luneau said. “... It would be fiscally irresponsible to let this program continue with no checks or balances on how many taxpayer dollars are being spent on it.”