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Excitement, trepidation on first day of full return for many local schools
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Paige Knapp arrived at Keene High School Monday morning with her hands full.

In her right hand, the sophomore from Stoddard balanced a cup of Dunkin’ iced coffee with the strap of a lunch box wrapped around her wrist. In her left hand, she held her cellphone, open to a web page confirming she had no COVID-19 symptoms and hadn’t come in recent contact with anyone with the viral respiratory illness.

She displayed this confirmation as she entered the building, the same way she has every day she’s been in school since September. But on Monday, for the first time all year, Paige was walking into a school with about 1,200 students. That’s roughly twice as many as attended in-person classes under the school’s hybrid model, in which students came to school two days a week.

“It’s really nerve-racking, but I’m really excited to see everyone again,” she said. “It feels good to be getting back to normal again, while also feeling safe.”

Monday — which marked the return to full in-person classes for N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 and the Monadnock Regional School District — brought a similar mix of excitement and trepidation for many students and staff members, they said. Melissa “Missy” Suarez, the principal at Mount Caesar Elementary School in Swanzey Center, said it felt like another first day of school.

'First day,' in May

“I Zoom with the whole school every morning, and that’s how we approached it, was this is like the second first day of school,” she said. “So, it’s good energy. It’s good to see people. It feels like we’re moving forward.”

Early last month, Gov. Chris Sununu ordered all K-12 public schools statewide to hold in-person classes five days a week beginning April 19, though districts can still offer a fully remote option to students who aren’t yet comfortable returning.

SAU 29 — which covers Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland — received a waiver from the state to delay a full reopening until Monday, when schools returned from spring break. The Monadnock district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — did not get a waiver. Instead, the school board sent a letter to N.H. Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut declaring the district’s intent to postpone fully reopening until this week.

Adalind Nugent, a kindergartener at Mount Caesar, said she was excited for the school’s full reopening, “because I get to play with my new friends.” Her teacher, Kate Ells, said she went from two cohorts of eight students, who came to school on Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays, to one class of 16.

“I’m very excited to have them all back,” Ells said as she watched over her students on the playground during recess Monday morning. “And the neat thing that I’ve noticed being out at recess is, I was worried that the two cohorts would kind of stick together as little cliques, but they’re all playing together, and they’re mixing together very nicely.”

Adalind, for instance, had already made a new friend, Anna Brochu, by the time their class went to recess shortly before 10 a.m. Anna said it was “really fun” to play with her new friend Adalind, adding that the pair spent their recess “playing tag and running around.” The latter activity was necessary, Adalind said, “because the boys were chasing us.”

Inside Mount Caesar, 1st-grader Kyran Pearson said he was feeling a little overwhelmed at all the new people in his classroom.

“It feels kind of scary,” he said. “... There’s a lot of people. And when all the people talk, I try to cover my ears because it is super loud.”

But, Kyran said, he still feels safe at school because his teacher, Melissa Fitz Gerald, is there for him. And ultimately, he’s looking forward to becoming friends with the other kids in his class he hadn’t met before Monday.

Fitz Gerald, who has 13 students in her class, said she was thrilled to have them all back at once but will feel more comfortable when all of her students are eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19. (The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has emergency-use authorization in the U.S. for people 16 and older, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are approved for people 18 and older.)

“I don’t think I’ll feel completely at ease until they’re all ready to be vaccinated, just because as a teacher, and as a parent also, that’s your main concern, is making sure they’re healthy and safe,” she said. “But I’m thrilled. It’s just nice having a full classroom back.”

Beckley Wooster, a freshman at Keene High, said she was looking forward to more full classrooms, too.

“I’m a little nervous, but I’m excited to meet everybody and have full-size classes,” said Beckley, a Winchester resident. “... [The hybrid model] is definitely not what I was expecting for my high-school experience. But I guess it’s been kind of nice to ease into high school with smaller class sizes.”

Mikayla Dudek, a Keene High senior, said big crowds make her anxious, but she still feels safe returning to full in-person classes because of the health and safety measures in place, like masking and social distancing. Plus, she added, returning to some level of normalcy gives her hope that some senior-year traditions will move forward, too.

“I think that there’s a plus side to coming back because, being a senior, I really want prom and graduation,” Mikayla, a Keene resident, said. “And I think that being back full time, I feel like there’s more of a guarantee for that. In hybrid, there was more of a, ‘Maybe not.’ ... That’s my big thing being a senior: I want prom and graduation.”

Dartmouth applications surge as state's smaller colleges see declines

Competition at Ivy League colleges this year has been intense, with schools like Dartmouth, Yale, Brown and Harvard seeing a spike in applications and slimming acceptance rates.

At Dartmouth College, applications for admission jumped by one-third in a single year, according to Lee Coffin, vice provost and dean of admissions and financial aid. In raw numbers, he said, the school saw about 7,000 additional applications over the year before.

Coffin said the increase was partially due to the pandemic.

“There was just a lot of uncertainty, so it prompted students to send in more applications than normal,” he said. Another factor, he said, was the suspension of its testing requirement.

“I think that invited students to think about, like, ‘Let’s try and see what happens’,” Coffin said.

The result was a 6.2 percent acceptance rate, the lowest in the school’s history, with 1,749 students admitted out of 28,357 applicants.

The wave of applications didn’t extend to all colleges and universities in New Hampshire. Two of the schools in the University System of New Hampshire received fewer applications in 2021 than in 2020. Keene State College received about 400 fewer applications than the 4,688 it had received at this time last year, an 8 percent drop. The slide was less at Plymouth State University, which received about 200 fewer applications than the 6,394 it received as of last spring, a 3 percent drop.

At the University of New Hampshire, the opposite was true. The school had received 20,933 applications for 2021 so far, an increase of 1,307 or about 7 percent more than the year before.

Some of the state’s small, private colleges aren’t seeing the same gains as Dartmouth, or even UNH, and are trying hard to keep pace with past enrollment.

At New England College in Henniker, the school saw a slight drop in enrollment during the pandemic.

“The last year has been difficult for students and faculty, but New England College has done very well with remote learning and keeping our residential campuses open for the fall and spring semesters during this academic year,” said President Michele Perkins.

As COVID-19 cases rose and fell, some students wanted to stay closer to home.

“Our residential undergraduate population has declined somewhat, but growing graduate enrollments, including international students, will keep the college quite close to last year,” Perkins said.

Colby-Sawyer College in New London has been ahead of pace for accepting students throughout the admissions cycle, according to Anna Miner, vice president for admissions and financial aid.

“We feel our welcoming community and sense of place is resonating with our prospective students and families,” Miner said.

To keep interest high during the pandemic, schools had to get creative with virtual admissions events, while lifting some application criteria, like assessment tests, since the pandemic prevented some students from taking the exams.

Keene State had already done away with its SAT requirements except in its nursing and honors programs. But this year, the school did not require test scores for those programs either and will later decide whether to make that change permanent, according to Peg Richmond, director of admissions at Keene State.

“We wanted to break down every barrier we possibly could,” Richmond said.

The admissions team had to change its approach during the pandemic by coordinating virtual events with prospective students and faculty.

“Everybody is recruiting, and it’s working,” Richmond said.

A crucial change at Dartmouth was the admissions team’s use of virtual recruitment efforts.

“Because we were forced into this remote workplace, admission officers had to imagine new strategies to recruit,” Coffin said. Between May 2020 and December 2020, Dartmouth saw a 64 percent increase in contact with prospective students.

“Instead of having to travel to do outreach, we were able to do Zoom programming and other webinars,” he said. A typical in-person admission info session would accommodate about 100 people, while the online events allowed for up to 1,000 to join.

Marlin Collingwood, interim vice president for communications, enrollment and student life at Plymouth, said the biggest effect of the pandemic was how it “impacted the way we operate and talk to students.”

“The one-on-one connection with students has suffered. We’ve had to make up for that,” Collingwood said.

Collingwood said prospective students from inside and outside of New Hampshire might be taking a closer look at colleges here.

“Maybe this isn’t the time for an urban college experience or an experience at a school with 40,000 students,” he said. “I think we benefit from that, and we benefit from our small community feel on campus.”

Admissions officials remained confident that enrollment will continue to grow, as pandemic concerns fade and people return to school.

“As more students realize that things are coming back to a new normal, I think we’ll see our numbers continuing to rise like they were before,” Collingwood said.

New York nuclear closure could increase gas use, but likely not in New England

Natural gas use is expected to increase in New York after the closure Friday of the state’s largest nuclear plant. But it probably won’t trickle out to New England, according to a regional industry leader.

New York and New England’s power grids can share electricity with each other, depending on supply and demand.

They use a similar fuel mix, with very little coal and oil and an increasing amount of wind and other renewables; New York is especially dependent on hydropower.

But both regions run largely on gas and nuclear power, meaning that when a nuclear plant closes, it’s usually backfilled with gas.

That happened in New England after the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant retired in 2014, and climate activists expect the same in New York with the Indian Point nuclear plant now offline.

That mix is likely to change again in the coming years as New York works to bring huge amounts of offshore wind power online.

But in the short term, it’s unlikely to affect the power that gets exported northward, according to Dan Dolan, the head of the New England Power Generators’ Association. He says gas already tends to supply the relatively small amount of power New England gets from New York every day.

New England states, including New Hampshire, are hoping to see their own boom in offshore wind power within the decade — potentially decreasing gas dependence further.

The region has two remaining nuclear plants: Seabrook in New Hampshire and Millstone in Connecticut. Millstone’s two reactors are licensed to run through 2035 and 2045, and Seabrook’s license was recently extended through 2050.

In the next nine years, President Joe Biden aims to permit enough offshore wind energy in the U.S. to equal the capacity of 25 new Seabrook reactors.

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Lawsuit filed over layoffs at Vermont Bread Co. and parent company
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Last week’s abrupt closures of Koffee Kup Bakery plants in Brattleboro and Burlington, Vt., have prompted a class-action lawsuit alleging the company did not give employees the notice required by federal law.

Matthew Chaney, a former worker at Vermont Bread Co. in Brattleboro — a subsidiary of Koffee Kup Bakery, which is based in Colchester, Vt. — filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Vermont on Thursday, on behalf of himself and other terminated workers.

The closures resulted in about 250 layoffs in Vermont.

Koffee Kup Bakery Inc. was acquired on April 1 by American Industrial Acquisition Corp., a New York-based private equity firm, according to an April 7 news release from G2 Capital Advisors, which advised Koffee Kup during the sale.

On April 26, Jeff Sands of Dorset Partners LLC, an adviser to AIAC, notified the state of Vermont that Koffee Kup was shuttering its facilities in Burlington, which employed 156 workers, and Brattleboro, which employed 91.

According to the lawsuit, Koffee Kup also laid off employees at a third facility in North Grosvenor Dale, Conn., bringing the total to around 500. The Sentinel was not immediately able to confirm the Connecticut layoffs with that state’s Department of Labor.

The notices provided to the Vermont Department of Labor attributed the closures to Koffee Kup’s financial situation. Sands said in a news release last Tuesday that Koffee Kup had lost money in each of the past four years.

The lawsuit — filed against AIAC, Koffee Kup and three associated companies, including Vermont Bread Co. — claims the layoffs violated the federal WARN Act, which generally requires employers to give workers, states and municipalities 60 days’ notice before plant closures or mass layoffs. The lawsuit seeks to recover 60 days of wages and benefits for the laid-off employees.

The WARN Act includes certain exceptions, including for natural disasters and unforeseeable business circumstances. AIAC has cited another exception to the law: Companies that are actively seeking financing to avoid closures or layoffs do not need to give 60 days’ notice if it “would have precluded the employer from obtaining the needed capital or business.”

In his notices to the state last week, Sands wrote that Koffee Kup had defaulted on loans and its lenders had allowed it to keep operating under a forbearance agreement.

The company, he wrote, “had undertaken very substantial efforts to obtain additional financing or investors” without success, and lenders declined to extend the forbearance agreement or loan Koffee Kup more money.

Sands wrote that on April 22, Koffee Kup “received default notices from the lenders to the company demanding immediate payment of outstanding loans, asserting its rights to take possession of our assets and confirming that it would no longer extend credit to cover operating costs of the company including payroll.”

Sands wrote that the company could not have given notice about the closures earlier because it was exploring ways to keep operating.

“We were unable to provide you with this notice any earlier as we were uncertain of the success of the efforts that we have been making to continue operating,” he wrote. “Earlier notice of this unfortunate outcome would have been premature and would have jeopardized those very efforts.”

In a statement last Wednesday, Vermont Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said his department’s legal team “is currently reviewing the notices that were provided and have already been in contact with the [Koffee Kup Bakery] to determine whether the company complied with” the state’s version of the WARN Act. A spokesman for the Department of Labor said that review is still underway.

Stuart J. Miller of New York-based Lankenau & Miller LLP, one of the attorneys representing the Koffee Kup employees, said justifications are common in WARN Act cases.

“Almost every case, the employer comes up with a story at the end — ‘It was unforeseeable,’ ‘We were seeking financing’ — and then they give notice the last day,” he said.

To claim the WARN Act exemption related to seeking financing, he said, a company must prove several things, including that it had a “reasonable, good-faith” belief it could get that financing. Miller said he’s skeptical of that here, based on Koffee Kup’s financial situation.

In such cases, he said, “very often it turns out there was no good-faith belief they were going to get that financing — they’re in default all over the place.”

Miller said his team has heard from additional employees and plans to file an amended complaint with more plaintiffs.

Sands declined to comment Monday, referring a reporter to the WARN Act notices he filed on Koffee Kup’s behalf.

“Four years of losses are the culprit,” he told the Brattleboro Reformer last Tuesday, before the lawsuit was filed. “Everyone wants a villain storyline, but there’s just not one there. This one just wasn’t salvageable.”

He said he couldn’t discuss how much Koffee Kup had lost or why it was losing money, according to the paper.

Efforts to reach Chaney, the former employee, Monday were unsuccessful.

Founded in 1940, Koffee Kup acquired Brattleboro’s Vermont Bread Co. in 2013, according to its website. It distributed its baked goods to more than 4,500 points in the Northeast and employed 500 people at its three bakery facilities in Vermont and Connecticut, according to the April 7 news release from G2 Capital Advisors.

Founded in 1996, AIAC has holdings in 24 countries that consist of around 80 manufacturing and distribution sites with more than 8,500 employees, according to its website. Those holdings range from defense and aerospace manufacturers to pharmaceutical companies.