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Back to school: Most families opt for in-person learning

Most students in the region are headed back to school in person, but significant contingents have opted for all remote learning or even homeschooling due to the continued disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Mason, the vast majority of families chose to send their children in person twice a week for the district’s hybrid model. About 75 families opted for the hybrid model, while only five are attending remotely full-time, according to Mason Elementary School Principal and district Superintendent Kristen Kivela.

Parent Tara Crosby said she’s comfortable sending her son to Mason Elementary only because of the small size and how well she knows the staff, while her daughter, who is attending Milford Middle School, is doing so remotely full-time.

“We know everyone here, and we know they’re not going to cut corners,” Crosby said.

Florence Rideout Elementary School in Wilton and Lyndeborough Central School in Lyndeborough welcomed back 1st-graders and kindergarten students on Monday for in-person classes five days a week.

Parent Alyssa Lavoie of Wilton, who has a kindergartener and 2nd-grader, said she opted for both of her children to attend in person, despite part-day options for her kindergartner and remote options for her older child.

“I think it’s important for them to be in school, as long as they can be,” she said. “They know it’s going to be different, but they’re still excited.”

Parent Brandon Smith of Wilton agreed, saying that his son Noah is going to be attending kindergarten full-time as well. He said it was important to him that his son attend in person, and he didn’t see that there would be a significantly reduced risk by sending him only half the day.

“Kids that age need that social interaction,” he said.

He said his children haven’t struggled with things like mask-wearing and are just excited to start school.

Sixty-one percent of students in the Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School District intend to return to school in person five days a week, Superintendent Brian Lane said on Aug. 13. Families were asked to specify their intent by Aug. 4, he said, and 21 percent of students will be learning remotely five days a week, 8 percent are using a modified structure where they attend in person for part of the week, 2 percent will be homeschooled, 2 percent have withdrawn from the district, and the district still hadn’t heard from 6 percent of students. There have been no staff resignations over COVID-19, Lane said, although some have opted to work at other schools or to retire. Next week, the district intends to distribute information on what to expect regarding distance learning, class schedules and returning to school, he said.

At ConVal, more than 72 percent of students are returning in person and more than 20 percent are participating remotely, Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders said on Friday, as the school district continued to follow up with families about their plans for the start of the school year. More than 85 percent of ConVal’s staff will be teaching in person.

Samantha Bernstein lives in Hancock, and her son is a senior at ConVal Regional High School. “Henry really likes being in school but doesn’t think it’s really safe, and he’s torn about it,” she said. “I think everyone’s feeling pretty torn, [the reopening plan is] a huge compromise document … Any kid old enough to express their opinion will say, ‘This is good, this is bad, and I wish COVID hadn’t happened,’ ” she said.

Bernstein is a nurse and pursuing a Ph.D., and approves of ConVal’s plan. “There’s always some amount of risk,” she noted, but she said the district appeared to factor in everyone’s interests and didn’t make any decisions haphazardly.

Ashley Concha-Vera, a mother of 10-year-old twins, found homeschooling the preferable option for the start of the year. “I have never thought about homeschooling. I was always that mom who said I would never homeschool, ever,” Concha-Vera said, but her kids were uncomfortable with the idea of starting 5th grade in a new school and being unable to play with their friends as they usually would, due to physical-distancing rules. “It’s just so hard to watch your kids go to play with a friend and have to restrain themselves,” she said. “It’s not the life I imagined for my kids when I became a mom.”

Concha-Vera has a full-time job as a financial adviser. In order for homeschooling to be feasible, buy-in from the twins’ stepmother and other homeschooling families was essential, she said. Three or four other families agreed to isolate while homeschooling so the kids could play together without restrictions. Concha-Vera’s best friend, who is also homeschooling her daughter, will teach the twins one day a week, and her mother-in-law will watch them during the day. “We’ll be schooling in afternoons and some weekends to make it work,” she said.

“Homeschool gives us flexibility to follow things that are more interesting to kids,” Concha-Vera said, and she is gearing up to support her children’s hands-on interests. She’s been following local Facebook groups and attending virtual Q&As with veteran homeschool families to source curriculum and trade tips with other newbie homeschoolers. Her kids are excited to incorporate things like gardening and a geology study into their science curriculum, she said, as well as to spend more time with their little sisters, who are 3 and 1, respectively.

Although Concha-Vera hopes her kids can go back to school in person for the second semester, it’ll all depend on their comfort level, she said. She said she’s felt supported in her decision to homeschool by her group of friends but noted the high levels of division and argument among parents about the best options for children right now. “The most important thing for people to know is that whatever decisions they’re making for their child, that’s the best decision,” she said, “It’s not about what I do or you do.”

So far, the percentage of families opting for in-person schooling mostly line up with the intentions parents expressed earlier in the summer, in a survey conducted by the statewide School Transition, Reopening, and Redesign Task Force. The results of that survey were released on July 20. At that point, 67 percent of ConVal responders and 63 percent of Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative responders said they were likely to send their child to school, and 13 and 24 percent said they were unlikely, respectively. Seventy percent of Mascenic responders, and 77 percent of Jaffrey-Rindge responders said they were likely to send their child to school in person at that point.

Results reported by ConVal, WLC, Mascenic and Jaffrey-Rindge were fairly similar in the STRRT survey results. Although most said they wanted to send their children to school, and more than 80 percent of their children were eager to return, responders also indicated significant uncertainty that faculty and students could successfully mitigate the coronavirus.

Although more than three-quarters of responders said they personally understood the recommended health and safety guidance provided by health officials, only around half (from 46 percent at WLC to 58 percent at Mascenic) believed their schools could adequately implement that guidance. Similarly, about half of responders (from 43 percent at Mascenic to 56 percent at WLC) did not believe students could maintain new restrictions like social distancing, avoiding congregating in groups and physical contact with peers, and other safety protocol.

Overall, more parents believed their child’s anxiety levels increased since transitioning to remote learning in the spring. At ConVal, 17 percent of responders agreed their child’s anxiety levels decreased after the switch to remote learning in the spring, while 58 percent disagreed.

Overall, the STRRT survey recorded 388 responses from ConVal, 110 from WLC, 240 from Mascenic and 268 from Jaffrey-Rindge.


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Quartet of Democrats compete for Keene seat in NH House

Schapiro

A Keene woman is taking on two incumbents in the Democratic primary to represent Cheshire County District 16 in the N.H. House, despite saying she “deeply respects” them. Reps. William Pearson and Joe Schapiro are running for re-election against local business owner Amanda Elizabeth Toll and a fourth candidate, Ryan Meehan, in the Sept. 8 primary election.

District 16, which covers all of Keene’s five wards, has been represented by Democrats since 1994. The district was allocated a second seat in the Legislature eight years ago.

The top two vote-getters in each party’s primary will advance to the Nov. 3 general election. The two candidates who receive the most votes in that contest will represent the district in Concord.

Four Republicans — Ian Freeman, Matt Roach, Jerry Sickels and Varrin Swearingen — are vying for their party’s nomination.

Voters can cast their ballot for two candidates in each election but can vote in only one primary.

Here’s a look at the Democratic field:

William Pearson

William Pearson, 29, is District 16’s longest-serving current representative, having held his seat since 2016.

Pearson was first elected to the Legislature in 2014, just six months after graduating from Keene State College but resigned that seat in Cheshire County District 4 after moving to a different ward in the Elm City. He was elected to the first of two consecutive two-year terms representing District 16 later that year.

Pearson, who graduated last year from the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law before working briefly as an attorney for a Manchester-based law firm, said he ran his 2014 campaign on a platform that advocated for campaign finance reform. Six years later, he remains committed to changing the state’s election laws and noted that the coronavirus pandemic presents both registered and eligible voters with new challenges.

“Generally, I’m trying to make voting easier,” Pearson said. “A situation like COVID-19 makes it blandly obvious that making it more difficult to vote isn’t helping our democracy … and there are avenues [to] make it more easy to vote.”

Pearson, who sits on the Election Law Committee, pointed to a bill he co-sponsored that allows New Hampshire voters to cast an absentee ballot this year if they are worried about being exposed to COVID-19 at the polls. Pearson said he supports eliminating the personal excuses that the state has traditionally required to vote by mail, which include employment conflicts, travel or disability.

He added that he would like New Hampshire to adopt automatic voter registration and allow residents to register online. Pearson also called for ranked-choice voting, a system adopted in Maine that advocates say prevents candidates with a small base of support from winning multi-candidate races, and appointing an independent commission to redraw the state’s political districts to prevent partisan gerrymandering.

If re-elected, Pearson said he would work to keep the $140 million in school funding that Democratic lawmakers added to the state’s 2019–20 budget in future spending bills.

He said the state should give school districts more guidance on COVID-related safety protocols than it has so far.

“I don’t think we can have districts going back if they’re going to be doing these haphazard approaches,” he said. “It would have been nice to see some statewide leadership from Gov. [Chris] Sununu — for instance, at least a mask mandate [in schools].”

Pearson also advocated for changes to the state’s labor regulations, which he said give the governor too much power in negotiations with unions, as well as removing its cap on net metering, which offers financial credit to homeowners who generate electricity from solar panels and other renewable sources on their property.

“If we want to talk about an overburdensome statewide regulation, let’s start with … restricting people from producing renewable electricity,” he said.

Joe Schapiro

Despite turning 70 on Sept. 6, Joe Schapiro is the “junior” representative from District 16.

Schapiro was elected in 2018, explaining that his work for the Keene Immigrant and Refugee Partnership, a group that petitioned the City Council in 2017 to use fairer policing practices for immigrant communities, encouraged him to run for office.

“I realized, by talking to people about issues, that people were very willing to listen and learn and that I was a good communicator,” he said.

Schapiro has lived in Keene for more than 30 years and retired last year from a career as a psychotherapist, working with patients in local hospitals, schools and in private practice.

In his seat on the Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee, Schapiro said he frequently considers legislation around medical licensing and health care. He added that he is particularly intent on expanding dental coverage for adult Medicaid recipients, who do not currently have access to many dental procedures in New Hampshire.

“It’s a mystery to me why dental benefits and dental care, in general, is separated from all health care,” Schapiro said. “Clearly, oral health is such an important part of physical health.”

In 2019, Schapiro cosponsored legislation that directed the state’s Department of Health and Human Services to design a program that would provide dental benefits for adults on Medicaid.

Sununu vetoed a bill in July that would have codified the department’s plan to establish dental coverage, due to what he called “historic revenue shortfalls.”

Schapiro also touted legislation he cosponsored that expanded telehealth providers’ ability to treat patients with substance-use disorders and prescribe certain medications.

He also said the pandemic has exposed the dangers of an employee-based health-care system, pointing to the state’s 29,000 residents — 30 percent of its uninsured adults — who lost coverage between February and May after being laid off.

“I believe that everybody should have health care and that that is the responsibility of society,” Schapiro said. “I see my role … as being able to provide access to health care to as many people as possible.”

Schapiro agreed with Pearson that the state has not provided adequate safety guidelines for schools reopening their doors this fall and suggested making additional money available for safety measures. He also labeled the state’s model of funding public schools, which relies primarily on local property taxes, as “regressive” because less wealthy communities must impose higher taxes than their wealthier counterparts to generate the same amount of revenue.

“I think it’s pretty clear that the way that we fund education creates incredible disparities,” he said.

Like Pearson, Schapiro supports expanding the state’s cap on net metering and added that he would like to increase its renewable energy targets. He said he may also introduce legislation that would prevent the New Hampshire Retirement System from investing its assets, which are worth nearly $9 billion, in environmentally destructive corporations.

“Not only should they think about how to protect their investments, but also how to protect the environment in terms of their investments’ impact,” Schapiro said.

He said his proudest moment from his first term was voting to abolish the state’s death penalty last year, when several Republican lawmakers joined Democrats to override Sununu’s veto. He also expressed concern that the minimal pay for state representatives — $200 per term — makes running for elected office impossible for many working families, which he said limits representation in the state legislature.

Amanda Elizabeth Toll

Amanda Elizabeth Toll, 36, is challenging the district’s incumbent representatives because she said Keene would benefit from “progressive female leadership.”

Toll, who owns Ms. Amanda’s Compassionate Ice Cream, which sells artisan-made, plant-based ice cream at various Keene food markets, praised Pearson and Schapiro for their work. She explained, however, that her background would give her a unique perspective as a legislator.

Toll said that after an unplanned pregnancy as a teenager, she was able to have a safe, legal abortion that allowed her to go to college and later become a business owner. She added that she is sharing her story in an effort to destigmatize abortion, citing statistics that show one in four women in the United States has an abortion before the age of 45.

“These are our sisters. These are our mothers,” she said. “We need to humanize this issue.”

Toll criticized Sununu for vetoing legislation last month that would have required health-care providers that cover maternity costs to insure abortion services, which she said would have made safe, legal abortion more accessible.

“I think it’s powerful to have a female candidate, during this time where reproductive justice is under attack, say, ‘I needed that service, and that service allowed me to go college, to go to graduate school [and] to raise a child when I was ready,’ ” Toll explained.

Toll added that she is running for office to defend survivors of domestic abuse after she, herself, was in an abusive relationship.

If elected, she said she would support legislation to amend New Hampshire law, which currently requires both parties in a conversation to agree for that conversation to be recorded, to a one-party consent standard. She said one-party consent laws, which 38 states have in various forms, help prevent domestic abuse and punish perpetrators, who can be held accountable based on survivors’ recordings.

“It’s limited what you can do as a state rep, but what I … will do is be a fierce advocate by sharing my story and advocating for feminist policies that will benefit survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse,” Toll said.

She also called for adding lessons on social and racial justice to the state’s educational curriculum, pointing to her own experience as a social studies teacher in Longmeadow, Mass., when she said she “brought progressive values” to the classroom.

“There are many teachers who are already doing progressive education, but it’s important to have it be public policy that we’re doing anti-racism work in our classrooms,” she said.

Toll said she moved to Keene five years ago and instructed yoga classes for various groups, including working mothers, before opening Ms. Amanda’s Compassionate Ice Cream last year.

As a legislator, she said she would support locally owned small businesses, rather than large corporations.

She added that she would be a “consistent progressive vote” in the Legislature on issues relating to climate justice, access to health care, gun safety and support for LGBTQ+ individuals.

“I was privileged in that as a teenager, I could afford an abortion, and when I was an adult trying to leave an abusive relationship, I could afford a progressive female attorney,” she said. “What does it mean for those who are marginalized?”

Ryan Meehan

A fourth candidate in the Democratic primary, Ryan Meehan, filed registration papers with the Secretary of State in June. Meehan did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Meehan’s listed address in the filing records is 229 Main St., which is the Keene State College mailroom.

Editor’s note: The Sentinel is previewing all contested primary races covering area communities. Tell us what you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for your vote via our Voter Values survey at sentinelsource.com/vote.


Mcclatchy
White House says CDC will halt evictions using quarantine rules

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration said it will use its quarantine authority to keep renters in their homes during the coronavirus pandemic as a way to prevent an eviction crisis that could worsen economic strains.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to temporarily halt evictions of consumers earning no more than $99,000 a year to prevent the virus from spreading, a senior administration official said Tuesday. The policy will take effect immediately.

The administration is acting unilaterally after failing to reach a deal with lawmakers over another round of stimulus relief funding, aimed in part at keeping renters in their homes.

To obtain the relief, renters must assert they are incapable of paying their rent or are likely to become homeless if kicked out of their property, the administration official said.

Individuals who received a coronavirus stimulus check earlier this year also qualify for the protection, as do couples who jointly file their taxes and expect to earn less than $198,000.

The move is an unprecedented use of executive authority, and may face legal challenges from landlords who have seen rental income evaporate during the crisis. But administration officials believe they have the ability under a federal law that allows the CDC to order emergency measures when it determines that state and local governments haven’t taken sufficient steps to prevent the spread of a communicable disease.

A White House lawyer who asked not to be identified discussing the measure said that the CDC director has authority to take measures he deems reasonably necessary to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.

“President Trump is committed to helping hardworking Americans stay in their homes and combating the spread of the coronavirus,” White House spokesman Brian Morgenstern said in a statement. “Today’s announcement from his Administration means that people struggling to pay rent due to coronavirus will not have to worry about being evicted, and risk further spreading of or exposure to the disease due to economic hardship.”

Officials said the administration had made available stimulus funds to help offset the impact of the order for landlords and property owners. Roughly one in five American renters — between 19 million and 23 million people — are at risk of eviction by the end of September, according to an analysis by the Aspen Institute.

“This unprecedented action is further proof that President Trump is doing everything in his power to keep the American people safe and secure in their homes,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement.

Those seeking eviction relief will still be required to pay as much rent as they can afford. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said earlier Tuesday that the actions taken by the administration could impact “close to” 40 million renters.

President Donald Trump’s effort to suspend evictions under the CDC order follows executive orders he signed in early August after negotiators were unable to strike a deal on another round of stimulus funding. Trump’s other executive orders were designed to provide a temporary payroll tax deferral for some workers, increase state unemployment benefits, and freeze federal student loans.

Democrats have noted the administration has struggled to implement the unilateral tax and unemployment benefits, and called for the White House to increase its willingness to spend as part of the next round of funding. The Democratic-controlled House passed a bill in May that included $100 billion for rental assistance, but the White House and Senate Republicans have said the package — with a price tag over $3 trillion — is too high.


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Crotched Mountain transition to Gersh set for Nov. 1

After being acquired by Gersh Autism, the Crotched Mountain School in Greenfield will operate under the name Legacy by Gersh at Crotched Mountain, according to Kevin Gersh, founder of the for-profit provider.

Crotched Mountain announced the upcoming acquisition Monday, after saying in June that the school would close due to financial troubles accelerated by the pandemic.

Gov. Chris Sununu, along with Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut and Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette, praised the news, saying the acquisition would provide long-term stability to the children who use the school’s services.

The two entities have signed a letter of intent, with a formal transition to take place Nov. 1.

Opened in 1953, Crotched Mountain School serves adults and children living with disabilities and traumatic brain injuries through both residential and day programs.

Gersh Autism, founded in 1999, runs facilities and programs for children on the autism spectrum in New York, New Jersey, Washington, West Virginia and Puerto Rico.

In an interview, Gersh said he was long familiar with Crotched Mountain’s offerings, and that he approached the school after learning of its impending closure.

Gersh said he eventually plans on serving more than 100 residential clients ages pre-K through 21, as well as operating a day program for children with autism.

“It’s going to look just like it does now,” Gersh said. “Their staff and our staff have very similar philosophies on how to work with children on the spectrum. They put the children first; we put the children first. They customize education; we customize education.”

“We are just going to give it a shot of steroids,” he added.

According to its website, Gersh’s company traces its origins to a camp founded by his father on Long Island in 1954. Gersh opened a Montessori school in 1991. More recently, he has expanded his business, providing services for children with autism by opening facilities in New York and Puerto Rico.

Legal dispute

That expansion is a key part of a lawsuit brought by Gersh’s own sisters, who accuse him of defrauding them and using that money to fund his company’s growth.

The sisters — Ellen Greenhaus, Laurie Gersh and Roxanne Gersh — claim in a federal civil lawsuit that their brother has also used that money to support a lavish lifestyle, including a multi-million-dollar home in Park City, Utah.

“Kevin’s expansion of his core business of learning centers for children on the autism spectrum has expanded across the United States and Puerto Rico at a rate and level which would not have been possible without the use of the embezzled money,” the complaint states.

Gersh denies the allegations and told NHPR that the lawsuit has no merit and that his “sisters have never worked, and they are unemployed, and they are looking for a payday.”

Crotched Mountain President and CEO Ned Olney didn’t refer to the lawsuit in his statement posted on the facility’s website this week, and Gersh said the topic never came up during purchase negotiations. Olney said the acquisition by Gersh Autism means the school’s “mission will live on and expand over time to meet this growing need.”

In an emailed statement, Sununu said that “the state’s focus is on ensuring that the families that rely on Crotched Mountain’s services will have uninterrupted service. Although the state is not directly involved, our understanding is that these allegations will be vetted through the appropriate legal process.”

Crotched Mountain did not respond to requests for an interview. The purchase price for the facility, located on a bucolic property in Greenfield, hasn’t been disclosed.

Crotched Mountain School had been operating under large budget deficits in recent years. It never fully recovered from the financial recession in 2009, according to its statement in June on why it was closing.