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Schools, parents protest proposed ban on remote learning

School administrators and teachers appeared before the state Board of Education Wednesday to voice opposition to a proposed rule that would prevent school districts from imposing schoolwide remote learning due to COVID-19.

But Drew Cline, the board’s chairman, pushed back at some of the criticism, arguing that the current rule does not adequately include parental choice.

Introduced in September, the proposal would roll back a measure passed earlier this year that allows districts to enter into schoolwide remote learning to address COVID-19 outbreaks. The new rule would allow schools to offer remote learning as an option for students but would require that in-person learning also be offered to families who don’t want to be remote.

Schools could cancel classes entirely under the proposed rule if they deemed it necessary, but they would have to make up those lost days at the end of the year. The current rule allows schools to count remote learning days toward their yearly required instructional time.

At Wednesday’s public hearing on the rule, school officials, teachers unions, and some parents said it would tie districts’ hands while the threat of the coronavirus persists.

“Gov. Sununu recently said at a press conference that this fall and winter is going to get worse for COVID,” said Brian Hawkins, director of governance and administration at the National Education Association of New Hampshire, a teachers union. “In light of that, why would we take this option away from school districts and have it count for the number of instructional days?”

Lisa Witte, superintendent of the Monadnock Regional School District, said the rule change would take away the ability of school districts to make executive decisions.

“We want to be able to continue remote learning so that we’re not interrupting the flow of the school year when we have a COVID (outbreak),” she said.

“It’s not what the district wants,” she added, “it’s what is in the best interest of our communities and health and safety.”

Responding to Witte, Cline noted that the rule does not prevent schools from shutting down in the event of a surge in COVID-19 that was deemed unsafe.

“You can close the school,” he said. “You just have to add a day in the school year.”

Cline said the intent of the rule change was to allow some parents to be able to request remote learning if they desired it, and for other parents to continue to send their children to school in person.

“The proposal anticipates a parent buy-in, right?” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re trying to get that balance.”

Some at the hearing, such as Lisa Beaudoin, chairwoman of the State Advisory Committee on the Education of Children/Students with Disabilities, said the board should change the rules to require that schools offer remote learning options to students who ask them. As currently written, the rule allows only parents to request remote learning; it does not mandate that schools say yes to it.

To Bonnie Dunham, remote learning has a personal resonance. Though her son with disabilities is now an adult, Dunham noted he is immunocompromised, and she said he’d be a model beneficiary of a remote-learning policy if he were still in school. Schoolwide remote learning policies would also allow her daughter to stay home and avoid bringing back the virus, too, Dunham said.

“Unless our school chose to offer that option, we would have either had to send our daughter away, live with a family member, put her up in an apartment at 8 years old, or drop out of the public school system,” Dunham said.

Cline said the board would look into making that change to the rules.

The proposed rule is still far from implementation. The Board of Education must hold a vote; if the rule is approved, it must go to the state’s Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, which must approve it and might modify it, and it must then return to the Board of Education for final approval.

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Keene group again hosting Veterans Day walks for suicide prevention
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In what has become an annual tradition, the Keene veterans support group Ruck-Up will host two walks through the city Thursday to raise money for suicide prevention.

The walks include an 11-mile “long patrol” meant to replace a national event typically held by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) but which was canceled for the second straight year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ruck-Up, which offers mental-health counseling as well as financial and housing assistance to local veterans, has sent people to participate in each national walk — held overnight and known as Out of the Darkness — since the group’s creation in 2010, according to co-founder A.J. Paige. But with that event on pause, the Keene nonprofit will host a local version once again, he said.

The 11-mile trek will start from Central Square at 6 p.m. This will follow a 3-mile walk, from the same place at 1 p.m., that Paige said Ruck-Up has held on Veterans Day four times since 2016.

“There’s not a better day in the world to do it,” Paige said.

Registration in both events, available on site, is free, but Ruck-Up accepts donations from participants or people sponsoring them. An online registration page for Thursday’s walks said the Keene group had raised just over half of its $5,000 fundraising goal as of Wednesday afternoon.

All proceeds will go to AFSP, which funds mental-health research, advocates for policies related to suicide prevention and supports people affected by suicide.

Suicide rates are consistently higher among veterans than non-veterans: In 2019, when those rates dropped for both groups, veterans were still nearly twice as likely to die by suicide, according to data published by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Paige said Wednesday that Ruck-Up, which had 54 people go to the most recent AFSP walk in Boston in 2019, has raised more than $420,000 for that organization in just over a decade.

That energy continued last year, he said, even though the Out of the Darkness walk was canceled because of the pandemic. Two groups — one comprising veterans and the other area Boy Scouts — took part in Ruck-Up’s own long walk, according to Paige.

“They ultimately ended up walking together anyway, which was great,” he said.

Paige, who served 23 years in the U.S. Army, said 30 to 40 people typically walk in Ruck-Up’s shorter event, versions of which are held in hundreds of communities across the country. In addition to veterans, he said, participants have included their family members and other area residents passionate about suicide prevention.

This year, Paige said he thinks even more people could turn out for the Veterans Day tradition, which he said has drawn substantial interest.

“We’re hoping to see more folks,” he said. “… I’m not sure what we’re going to get for a response.”

Anyone with questions about Thursday’s walks is encouraged to contact Ruck-Up at 603-903-1255.

A number of Monadnock Region communities are marking Veterans Day with their own events. These include a parade and ceremony at 10:30 a.m. on Blake Street in Jaffrey, as well as 11 a.m. ceremonies at the Keene Recreation Center and the West Swanzey Community Church, respectively.

NH council OKs $22.5 million for vaccine efforts

Three of the Executive Council’s Republicans who helped defeat $27 million in federal contracts for vaccine distribution last month — a move condemned by Gov. Chris Sununu and health care providers — reversed course Wednesday.

Councilors Joe Kenney, Janet Stevens, and David Wheeler joined Councilor Cinde Warmington, the council’s lone Democrat and only member to support the contracts from the start, to approve $22.5 million of that spending. Republican Councilor Ted Gatsas abstained without saying why prior to the vote. Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette has found alternative federal funds for the remaining $4.7 million.

The $22.5 million contract was introduced as a late item and not on the agenda or the Executive Council’s website prior to the meeting.

The Republicans’ reversal appeared to hinge on a last-minute nonbinding resolution from Kenney that stated the governor and Executive Council supports the attorney general’s legal challenges to federal vaccine mandates and endorses efforts to make the state’s vaccine registry opt-in, not opt-out, as it is now. The resolution, which has no legal authority, also cited the attorney general’s conclusion that language within the contract does not bind the state to enforce all federal COVID-19 orders, contrary to arguments from vaccine and mandate opponents.

“The Governor and Executive Council (has) determined it is necessary to make a clear statement as to important issues relating to federal mandates that involve isolation and quarantine enforcement, immunization registry, and the maintenance of the state’s workforce,” Kenney’s resolution said.

Warmington, who first saw Kenney’s resolution minutes before the meeting, objected. “I am going to vote for this late item despite my vigorous objections based on the fact that … it is a meaningless legal document that is here for political cover only,” she said. “I would put public health before politics every single time.”

Absent from Wednesday’s meeting were the dozens of anti-vaccine and anti-mandate activists who shut down a September council meeting with protests, preventing a vote on the contracts, and packed an October meeting to pressure councilors to reject the contracts. When the contracts failed at last month’s meeting, they cheered.

Rebuild NH, which has led the effort to oppose the contracts, was unaware the council was revisiting the contracts.

“New Hampshire government is no longer setting a good example for transparency,” said J.R. Hoell, treasurer of Rebuild NH. “A late item to the Executive Council agenda that was never made public before it was voted on was passed today. This happened without citizens being made aware the item was even going to be on the agenda. This is deceitful. We can do better.”

Sununu issued a statement following Wednesday’s vote. “Thanks to a bipartisan majority of the Executive Council for working with my administration to revisit and craft a solution to accept these critical public health federal funds,” he said. “We are moving full steam ahead.”

The $22.5 million contract still needs approval of the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee. That’s not a guarantee; that committee tabled the contract at its September meeting after members cited objections to federal vaccine mandates and one cited unfounded claims about the vaccine’s effectiveness. Shibinette later withdrew the contract, meaning she will have to bring it back before the council.

Shibinette has said losing the $27 million in federal funding would mean delays for adults seeking booster shots and parents eager to vaccinate their children who were not eligible until this month.