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SAU 29 schools to continue remote learning until Jan. 19
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Schools in N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 will begin the new year with two more weeks of remote learning, with the goal of returning to some in-person instruction on Jan. 19, Superintendent Robert Malay announced Monday.

Malay said the two-week extension of remote learning is a “precautionary measure” prompted largely by the heightened potential for coronavirus transmission if families and school staff traveled or gathered with people outside their homes for Christmas.

“The [COVID-19] numbers are starting to trickle downward, but quite frankly there’s a lot of uncertainty with holiday travel and gatherings,” Malay said in a phone interview Monday afternoon. “So we want to have that grace period to have better certainty.”

SAU 29 — which covers Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland — switched from a hybrid model to fully remote instruction after Thanksgiving, amid skyrocketing COVID-19 cases throughout the state. Schools were previously scheduled to return to a mix of in-person and online classes when winter break ends Jan. 4.

“I realize that many people were hopeful we would be back onsite on January 4th,” Malay wrote in a post on the SAU 29 website. “You are not alone as I was hopeful for that as well. I know that my children, like many others, respond better onsite than they do remotely and I want us all to get back there as soon as we can with high levels of confidence that we will all be safe.”

Before Thanksgiving, most SAU 29 schools were operating under a hybrid model, in which students attend in-person classes two days a week and learn remotely for three days. Students at Marlborough and Westmoreland schools had been going to class in-person five days a week, and Chesterfield School was in the process of shifting to full on-site instruction. SAU 29 families also have the option for their children to learn fully remotely this entire school year.

Since SAU 29 switched to fully remote classes in November, a “very limited” number of students have been attending some in-school instruction, Malay said. This includes students who receive certain special education services, and others whose coursework can’t be completed remotely, such as students enrolled in more technical, hands-on classes at the Cheshire Career Center.

Those opportunities will continue when classes resume next week, Malay said.

SAU 29’s continuation of remote learning brings it in line with the majority of local school districts that are beginning the semester remotely next week, and planning to return to some in-person classes after Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The ConVal Regional School District — which covers Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough, Sharon and Temple — switched to fully remote learning after Thanksgiving, and plans to bring students back to school on Jan. 19. This transition was written into ConVal’s reopening plan over the summer in anticipation of a second wave of the novel coronavirus around the holidays.

The Fall Mountain Regional School District — which covers Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Langdon and Walpole — also intends to resume hybrid instruction on Jan. 19. The district moved to remote instruction on Nov. 30 because of rising cases throughout the region.

The Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District transitioned to remote learning two weeks earlier, following several COVID-19 cases within the schools there. The school board voted unanimously on Dec. 7 to continue with online learning through Jan. 19.

Students in Hinsdale are also slated to begin the new semester remotely until Jan. 19. The district finished the first semester fully remote last week after three students at Hinsdale Elementary School and one bus driver contracted COVID-19, according to a post on the district’s website.

The Winchester School Board is scheduled to consider whether to switch back to a hybrid model at its meeting next Thursday. Winchester School has been operating remotely since Nov. 16 due to the spike in coronavirus cases locally.

The Monadnock Regional School District remains the only area district planning to return from winter break next week with a hybrid model. Board members in the Monadnock district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — have said they believe schools remain safe despite rising coronavirus cases throughout the region, and students benefit from at least some in-person learning. The board is scheduled to reconsider switching to fully remote learning at its meeting next Tuesday.

From ice rink to drive-in voting: How the NH Legislature plans to meet next year

They started in a hockey rink, indoors at seats spaced 6 feet apart.

As winter closed in and COVID-19 cases rose, they moved to a field hockey rink and bundled up.

Next month, the 2021-22 N.H. Legislature is trying a new approach: the drive-in voting session.

Plans are still in the works, but interim House Speaker Sherman Packard and his staff are working with the University of New Hampshire to allow lawmakers to meet in their cars in a parking lot when they hold their next meeting on Jan. 6.

The model is familiar to anyone who’s attended a drive-in movie. Lawmakers will park their cars, tune their radios to a dedicated FM station and listen to the proceedings. Speeches will be made from microphones at the front. A sound system will carry the remarks for anyone who’d rather keep their windows down.

It’s the latest attempt to change up the operating plan as the second wave of the coronavirus continues to crest.

The approach is also a response from Republican leadership to a chorus of criticism from Democrats, who argue the Legislature should hold votes entirely remotely next year given recent cases of COVID-19 among members of the Legislature.

The number of New Hampshire lawmakers who have publicly said they have tested positive for coronavirus include Rep. Kimberly Rice, a Hudson Republican and the present Speaker Pro Tempore; Rep. Fred Plett, a Goffstown Republican; and Sen. Bob Giuda, Republican of Warren.

House Speaker Dick Hinch died earlier this month at 71 after contracting COVID-19, according to the state’s medical examiner. One staff person in the House majority office and another staff person in Gov. Chris Sununu’s office also have tested positive for the virus in recent weeks. And a Nov. 20 gathering of Republican House representatives was identified by the Department of Health and Human Services as a “spreader event”; at least four lawmakers present tested positive for the virus afterward.

On Dec. 18, House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing called on acting House Speaker Sherman Packard to take up remote meeting for the Jan. 6 meeting.

“With a body of 400 members, it is essential that we figure out how to meet remotely beginning on January 6th,” Cushing said. “No legislator should have to put their life at risk to fulfill their duties.”

Cushing and Democrats say they sent the Speaker’s office a memo outlining suggestions for how the House could meet remotely Dec. 14.

But Packard said a remote meeting was not possible for Jan. 6, an important meeting in which rules will be voted on and a new speaker will be elected. Packard was nominated to succeed Hinch as Speaker by the Republican caucus earlier this month.

“It is my opinion, in talking with our staff, that we are not prepared to run an election for speaker or conduct our business for adopting rules in a remote meeting or hybrid situation, nor do our rules allow for it,” Packard wrote in a message to the full House in the calendar on Dec. 18.

“A drive-in type of event will satisfy our need to meet in-person for the purpose of balloting and voting,” he continued. “It will dramatically reduce or even eliminate the need to interact with each other. We will be protected from unnecessary risk and from the elements by our vehicles, and we will meet or exceed every CDC and Public Health recommendation.”

New Hampshire’s Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion in November indicating that the House could lawfully establish a quorum to hold votes remotely.

But in an interview, House Chief of Staff Aaron Goulette, who works in the speaker’s office, said that despite the Supreme Court opinion, the House can’t meet remotely until it passes rules to do so, which it hasn’t done.

That rule change could happen at the Jan. 6 meeting. But it might be unlikely — the House Rules Committee, which sends recommended rule changes to the full House, did not recommend that change at its Dec. 16 meeting.

Instead, the Rules Committee passed a pair of rules that pave the way for hybrid committee meetings, allowing a quorum to be reached with virtual committee members and allowing the public to observe the meetings virtually.

For now, the Speaker’s office is working with technicians at UNH to make the drive-in car approach operable for the meeting.

It is unclear whether Democratic members of the House, many of whom skipped the Dec. 5 outdoor meeting citing safety concerns, plan to attend the Jan. 6 meeting in cars.

Meanwhile, as the calendar approaches, House leadership is moving ahead with plans to use the Legislative Office Building for committee meetings under a “hybrid” model.

That would allow lawmakers, lobbyists and members of the public who want to participate remotely to do so by video call, and allow those who want to participate in-person to show up in Concord.

One lingering problem: The LOB, located just behind the State House, does not currently have adequate ventilation, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards for indoor meetings spaces, the speaker’s office says.

Goulette said the Department of Administrative Services has found a vendor to implement a temporary air filtration system while the building staff works to retrofit the entire building with a new HVAC system.

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What would police reform look like in NH — and will it happen?

Julian Jefferson, a staff attorney in the N.H. Public Defender’s office, has represented victims of racism and experienced it firsthand.

“I am a Black man,” he said in his testimony before the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency. “I have lived in New Hampshire since 2008. I have been working in the criminal justice system since 2011. I can tell you that racism exists in this state and in our criminal justice system.”

Jefferson, who also served on the commission, described a litany of racially charged personal experiences and client prosecutions he’s had to defend.

“I have defended three different clients in cases where police used excessive force and then turned around, with the complicity of prosecutors, to overcharge cases. Thankfully for those clients, the citizens that served on their juries saw the excessive use of force for what it was,” he testified.

“The painful reality that I hope I can get you to see is that without my suit, I am just a Black man … and that can be a dangerous thing to be in this country and in this state. We all have work to do to confront and change this reality.”

That was the work the commission set out to do. Whether that work will have the desired results remains to be seen.

The commission was established by Gov. Chris Sununu this summer amid protests over policing and racial injustice in the spring, and was charged with developing recommendations to address the concerns raised by protesters. Sununu has endorsed all the recommendations, has put several into effect through executive order and set deadlines for others. The rest will head toward the state Legislature for approval.

Commissioners heard testimony that racism in policing is real in the Granite State, and not just a matter of the occasional “bad egg.” Law enforcement representatives on the commission maintained the problem was of limited scope in New Hampshire, but others disagreed.

“Racism in policing is not just a national problem,” according to Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the ACLU of New Hampshire, who submitted voluminous written testimony. “Even with the limited data collection that exists in the Granite State, this is also a New Hampshire problem.”

He cited statistics from a 2016 study by N.H. Public Radio showing that in New Hampshire, Black people are incarcerated at the rate of 1,040 per 100,000 population. The rate for whites is 202 out of 100,000 and 398 for Hispanics.

“Black people have a 5 times greater chance of being jailed in New Hampshire compared to white people — a statistic that is well above the United States average in which black people are 3.5 times more likely to be in jail,” wrote Bissonnette. “In Hillsborough County — the most populous and diverse county in the state — black people are nearly 6 times more likely to be in jail than white people.”

A narrower view

Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis, representing the state Association of Police Chiefs on the commission, took a different view of the problem, while still welcoming the commission’s recommendations.

“New Hampshire law enforcement does an excellent job,” he said in a recent interview. “We are not perfect, but we do an excellent job. If you look at what’s going on nationally, we are not seeing those issues here. That doesn’t mean we can’t improve.”

The commission’s 48 recommendations, heartily endorsed by Gov. Chris Sununu, chart a path toward those improvements. The most optimistic spin on the commission’s work is that the initiatives will result in significant changes over time.

If the recommendations are put into effect in the months and years ahead, at the local and state level, the training, oversight and practices of law enforcement will change significantly.

Starting with recruitment, officers will be more carefully screened for pre-existing biases that can’t be “trained away.” The training itself will be of longer duration and include more content related to diversity, inclusion, de-escalation and alternatives to force.

Accountability to the public will be enhanced by two new oversight boards — an independent Misconduct Review Board to hear complaints and a Public Integrity Unit in the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute. After due process, the names of officers who violate rules of evidence or otherwise engage in unethical conduct will be made public.

Body cameras will be universally in place among state police, and hopefully among the majority of municipal police. Data on racial profiling and prosecution will be more readily available to track progress or lack thereof.

The roles of school resource officers will be more precisely defined in the hope of reducing the arrest and prosecution of juveniles in the schools, with the contracts between schools and police made public.

Part-time officers will have to comply with more extensive training requirements, mental health professionals will be embedded in tactical response teams, new guidelines will be issued on the use of force and all departments will be more aggressively engaged in community outreach.

Will it make a difference?

There’s little doubt that Sununu is determined to see the recommendations he can control put into action, but most of the really big stuff requires legislation and/or buy-in at the local level.

Chief Dennis is optimistic on both counts. “I believe [lawmakers] will support the recommendations in the Legislature,” he said. “They are good for our communities, good for law enforcement. The governor has done his part through executive order to put some balls in motion, now there’s a legislative part. He already has the attorney general working on legislation so it can move forward. There are a lot of balls in the air.

One of the initiatives most likely to meet local resistance is the body camera recommendation, given the costs involved. According to the Police Executive Research Forum, the purchase cost per camera is approximately $189. Camera maintenance and video storage are bundled together for a per-camera cost of $739. The costs of administrative staff involved are estimated at $197 per camera. In larger departments, that can really add up.

“In Hanover, we’ve had them since 2018,” said Dennis. “We’ve had in-car cameras for 10 to 15 years. There are several agencies that already have body-worn cameras around the state, and many that don’t. I’ve heard some of the cost concerns. My personal opinion is it comes down to each community setting priorities of what they feel is important.”

Assuming most recommendations eventually take hold, the prediction of outcomes is mixed.

Joseph Lascaze, a young Black man who works as a “smart justice” organizer with the New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, represented the ACLU on the commission. “When I look at these recommendations, if they are all passed, I see the community members of New Hampshire will have more faith and trust in law enforcement,” he said.

“They will see law enforcement taking proactive steps to rebuilding the trust that’s been broken. I see community members feeling more comfortable when they are interacting with law enforcement. Things like body cams and dash cams will make community members feel more comfortable … I see our community members being able to operate without a fear of being targeted based on their identity.”

Ronelle Tshiela, co-founder of Black Lives Matter in Manchester, served as a public member of the commission. Like Lascaze and others not affiliated with law enforcement, she was disappointed that the commission didn’t tackle the questions of qualified immunity, pretextual stops or use of deadly force.

“I’m hoping that we’ll see meaningful change, However, I do think there is a ways to go,” she said. “It’s going to require a huge culture shift and I don’t think that can be done in a couple years, and I don’t think it’s on the backs of community members and citizens. It’s an issue for individual police departments to be thinking about. We still have a long way to go. There are some good things that came out of this, but I think we barely scratched the surface.

Shifting priorities

Department of Safety Commissioner Bob Quinn will be responsible for implementing many of the recommendations, and is convinced they will “take a good thing and make it even better,” especially when it comes to outreach. “At the State Police, we welcome this,” he said, “especially the focus on increasing community relations. We have a team working on this now. It’s a matter of shifting priorities.”

“I think what I took personally from it is that the community wants this … and if it builds trust between the division and the community I think it’s worth prioritizing it. Nobody wants a more well-respected law enforcement community than the police officers doing their jobs every day.”

According to Quinn, the proposed expansion and redesign of the training programs at the state’s police academy will be particularly valuable to law enforcement at all levels. “I think you’ll see tremendous acceptance and interest in the new training and opportunities with the [Police Standards and Training Council],” he said.

For Tshiela, the biggest disappointment was the reluctance of the commission to develop more specific proposals to restrict the use of deadly force, with a majority of commission members preferring to address that issue through training rather than regulation.

“I think it would have been beneficial to talk about it,” she said, “especially considering that we were there because of the killing of George Floyd. A lot of people denied that was the sole reason we were there, but the truth is, without all the controversy and protests this past summer, that commission would have never been created. So it was really disappointing that wasn’t discussed more heavily.”