Schools in N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 are preparing for a potential mix of in-person and online classes to begin the new academic year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a draft plan released Monday.
The 19-page document, posted on the SAU 29 website, envisions everything from possibly staggering school-day start and dismissal times to sanitizing classrooms daily.
The draft plan provides a framework for schools in the Keene, Chesterfield, Harrisville, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland districts to follow as they build their own specific plans. Those plans will continue to evolve throughout the summer, subject to the latest public health information and government guidance, according to Superintendent Robert Malay.
“I want to remind everyone that the framework is not a final decision on what model we will be implementing and advise that it was created with maintaining flexibility in mind,” Malay wrote in a message on the SAU 29 website.
Parents, students, school staff and community members can offer feedback on the draft plan by taking a survey on the SAU 29 website. The survey will be open until 8 a.m. next Monday, July 13. After that, SAU 29 leaders will review the feedback and incorporate it into a final plan set to be released the week of July 20.
“There is still a significant amount of work that we will need to do in order to be ready to resume educating our children/students,” Malay wrote. “... I am fairly certain that when the feedback comes in from our broader community of stakeholders, there will be additional items that will need to be addressed.”
For now, the draft framework lays out possible strategies for schools to address issues ranging from social distancing and personal protective equipment requirements to extracurricular activities and transportation to and from school. All of the potential plans are broken into three categories, based on whether classes will be offered in-person, online or in a hybrid model.
If schools reopen, or follow a hybrid model, the SAU 29 framework recommends schools consider spreading out student arrival and dismissal times to limit large gatherings, maximize the space between desks within classrooms and make hallways one-way where possible. The framework also indicates that hand-sanitizing stations would be set up at the entrances to all school buildings, and any staff member or student showing symptoms of respiratory illness or fever would be required to stay home.
The framework offers different options and suggestions for such scenarios, but final decisions will be up to individual schools, Malay said.
“As we work toward finalizing the framework, each building site will work through what those specific details will be for their individual locations,” he wrote. “Again, to hopefully be clear, the framework is intentionally designed to serve as a guide for all buildings to prepare site specific procedures that will best serve each individual location.”
Malay also said that, unless the state issues specific requirements for school reopening, SAU 29 schools will make their own decisions based on the most up-to-date advice of public health officials at the beginning of the new school year. That information will continue to change as the 2020-21 school year approaches, Malay added.
The SAU 29 draft framework is based on the work of three focus groups, which have been meeting since early June and concentrated on academics and instruction, student and staff services, and operations and logistics, respectively. These focus groups, made up of staff members from SAU 29 districts, designed an initial survey that garnered 2,681 responses over the course of one week in mid-June.
Those responses, along with a sample of school reopening plans from around New Hampshire and other states, serve as the basis for SAU 29’s draft reopening framework.
Separately, a statewide school reopening task force has developed recommendations for Gov. Chris Sununu, who is expected to issue the state’s official guidance for school reopening in mid-July. Schools throughout the state will be able to use those guidelines to inform their own individual reopening plans.
SWANZEY — A number of people are asking the town of Swanzey to stop using a Whitcomb Road church as its polling place amid concerns about Facebook posts made by the church’s pastor.
Community members have reached out to the Swanzey Board of Selectmen over the past few days, asking that the polls be moved from the Christian Life Fellowship church to a secular location.
In emails to the town on Sunday and Monday, at least two people cited inflammatory posts from Pastor Dave Berman’s personal Facebook account. Posts made over the past several months target a number of causes that tend to be championed by people whose politics lean left — including the Black Lives Matter movement and the mandated use of face masks as an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
In addition, a Change.org petition has been started to urge the selectboard to change the town’s polling place, calling it “inappropriate” to use places of worship for voting. The petition, which also cites the Facebook posts, had 369 signatures as of 8 a.m. Wednesday.
A July 3 post on Berman’s page that has been circulated on Facebook is headlined “No second lockdown” and advocates against the required use of masks, along with stay-at-home orders and mandated business closures. Another post, also from July 3, describes the Black Lives Matter movement as an “anti-Christ, pro sexual and gender perversion Marxist organization that wants to eradicate the nuclear family.”
A May 9 tweet from Berman’s Twitter account used a hashtag associated with a conspiracy theory about the coronavirus pandemic’s origins.
Swanzey resident Ed Sheldon is one of those who sent an email to the selectboard asking that the polling place be changed. He also submitted it to The Sentinel as a letter to the editor on Monday.
“While I have always had some trepidation about a church as polling place given our country’s principle of separation of church and state, I have accepted it as likely the most central and convenient location with proper handicapped access and space to host such an event,” Sheldon wrote in the email. “However, recent proclamations by ... Berman have brought me to the realization that we cannot trust that a fair and safe election can be held there in November.”
He told The Sentinel Tuesday that he first saw the posts within the past few days, when a meme posted from Berman’s Facebook account urging “patriotic disobedience” in response to measures against the COVID-19 pandemic — the same one with the “No second lockdown” headline — began making the rounds on the social-media platform.
In the email, Sheldon said he doesn’t mean to infringe on Berman’s right to free speech. But he said he worries about holding an election in a place where the organization’s leadership is advocating against safety precautions, including those recommended by health experts. He suggested moving voting to Whitcomb Hall, Monadnock Regional Middle/High School, the Swanzey Community House or another location.
In addition to the selectboard, Sheldon also sent his email to N.H. Sen. Jay Kahn of Keene; N.H. Reps. Jennie Gomarlo, Bruce Tatro and Barry Faulkner of Swanzey; and indicated he was forwarding it to U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan; and U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, all Democrats.
Swanzey Town Administrator Michael Branley told The Sentinel in an email Tuesday afternoon that it’s not up to the church to implement safety measures while people are voting.
“It would primarily be the responsibility of the town and its election officials to ensure reasonable safety precautions are followed related to COVID 19 during elections,” he wrote.
Another town resident, Robert Audette, wrote a similar letter to the selectboard as Sheldon, which he posted to his Facebook page and emailed to Branley as well as to Gomarlo and Tatro on Sunday. He expressed concerns about how members of marginalized groups might feel about entering the church after reading the Facebook posts from Berman.
“I would ask the board of selectmen to speak with the members of the community who are LGBTQ or People of Color and determine how they feel about going to a location where its preacher claims in a public forum ‘the education system has been indoctrinating your kids with perversion, communism and anti white racism,’ “ Audette wrote.
Sorting out differing views
Reached by The Sentinel Tuesday, Berman said the town is free to move the polling place from Christian Life Fellowship if it wants to, but also emphasized that some of his posts have been taken out of context. For example, he said he has not been telling people they shouldn’t wear face masks, but rather said he is against the government-mandated use of them, and he doesn’t feel governors have the right to force churches to close down, citing the First Amendment.
As for the Black Lives Matter movement, he said his objection is not based on prejudice against people of color and that all people are welcome in the church. Instead, he expressed a concern that the organization has roots in Marxism, a philosophy established by 19th-century German thinker Karl Marx, known for his role in the evolution of communism.
A connection between Black Lives Matter and Marxism has been reported by some conservative media outlets after a 2015 video surfaced showing movement co-founder Patrisse Cullors calling herself a "trained Marxist." A search of the movement's website showed no reference to the ideology.
Berman said he’s also upset about the violence that has been associated with some recent protests organized in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and said the organization has not condemned those who are involved.
“I’m opposed totally to that organization. Not to any message concerning whether people’s lives matter, since as a minister, I’ve ministered to every kind of person you can imagine, and I love every person,” he said. “Makes no difference to me what color their skin is.”
Berman also took aim at Keene City Councilor Randy Filiault, who has been critical of what he’s posted and circulated it to others. Though noting that Filiault is entitled to his opinions, Berman said a more appropriate way to challenge someone’s beliefs is to debate them respectfully.
Filiault said he didn’t know Berman or his church until the pastor was vocal against a mask ordinance he proposed for Keene in May that he later withdrew. Filiault said he first saw one of Berman’s recent posts after a friend from Swanzey shared it, and he thought his constituents in Keene would be interested to see it.
“I’ll always point out anyone that posts hateful comments on social media,” Filiault said, before referencing the ad hoc committee Keene Mayor George Hansel recently launched as part of a series of anti-racism measures in the city. “We’re about to have our first meeting on social injustice, and hateful posts only hurt and not help.”
This debate is ‘nothing new’
Swanzey Selectboard Chairman Kenneth Colby Jr. confirmed Tuesday that the town has received communications in recent days about the location of the town’s polls, but noted that the debate over moving where elections are held is nothing new.
“The basic problem that exists is trying to find a place that’s big enough and that has parking and other amenities,” Colby said.
Swanzey residents have been voting at Christian Life Fellowship church for more than a decade. And although elections in area communities are generally held in town halls, meetinghouses, community centers and schools, Keene and Walpole both have polling places in houses of worship.
Rep. Gomarlo said the Swanzey Democratic Committee has been interested in finding a new polling place for the past four or five years.
Even before Berman’s Facebook posts, she noted, she had concerns about using the church for elections due to its parking lot, which she said is not well lit and can become dangerous during bad weather. She said the Facebook post regarding COVID-19 safety measures “does not inspire confidence” that the church will be a safe place for voters this fall.
Gomarlo, who is running for her second term in Cheshire House District 12, said she has approached the selectboard to ask Monadnock Regional Middle/High School to host elections, most recently in January. However, she noted that the school has had concerns about students being in the building during voting, both because the process could disturb classes and because in New Hampshire, voters are able to wear weapons to the polls.
This story has been updated to correct the fact that Gomarlo asked the selectboard to approach the school district about hosting elections and did not ask the school district directly.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday urged the nation’s public schools to reopen “quickly and beautifully” and jabbed at districts that remain uncertain, again injecting politics into the pandemic response.
As the nation’s death toll from COVID-19 surged past 130,000 this week, cases are rising in 38 states, including an outbreak at child-care facilities in Texas. Teachers are anxious. Parents are confused and divided. And public-health experts worry that local officials nationwide haven’t spent the time and money to copy the preliminary successes of some European countries that have sent students back to schools in recent weeks.
Federal officials say it can be done, while conceding the risk and the need to track new cases closely. The American Academy of Pediatrics has said it’s imperative for the health of children to give school reopenings a go, given the risk children face of abuse and social isolation at home, among other potential ills.
Yet even many of those urging a return to school worry that Trump’s diminished credibility on managing the virus’ spread makes him ill-suited to lead the kind of debate on balancing competing concerns.
“The president has made himself beyond irrelevant on this, and no one can afford to listen to him because what he has done already is so dangerous and has cost so many lives,” said Arne S. Duncan, who served as secretary of education under President Barack Obama and was the former superintendent of Chicago Public Schools.
Increasingly desperate to revive the economy ahead of November’s election, Trump claimed during a White House roundtable on the subject that school officials who don’t quickly reopen classrooms would be acting in their political self-interest.
“They think it’s going to be good for them politically, so they keep the schools closed. No way,” Trump said. “So we’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everyone else to open the schools, to get them open. It’s very important.”
Afterward, six groups representing teachers, parents and school officials — including the two largest teachers unions — faulted the White House for offering “at best conflicting guidance for school reopening” and lacking “a comprehensive plan” that includes money for safety upgrades and equipment.
“No one wants students to safely return to classrooms more than parents, educators and administrators,” the statement said. “We also recognize that we must do it the safest way possible, not the most politically expedient way.”
Across the country, superintendents, principals, teachers, nonprofit groups and local elected officials have been working on plans and surveying parents during the prolonged pandemic. Many schools will be open in just weeks but with a mix of in-person and virtual learning, staggered schedules with smaller groups of students attending classes on different days, new procedures for lunch distribution and physical education, and likely without extracurricular activities like school choirs.
“This has got to be done thoughtfully,” Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said in an interview. “It’s not one-size-fits-all, and there will be some increased transmission in schools.”
Even as many infected children may not show symptoms, some do. “And we don’t know what the long-term health effects could be” even on those without severe symptoms, Koplan said.
The White House roundtable, one of several events to highlight Trump’s call to open schools, featured multiple panelists, including administration officials and supporters who praised the president — his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, even added the unrelated kudos, “Thanks to you, we’ve defeated ISIS.” While some attendees referred to precautions being taken by schools, there was little talk of ongoing risks, in keeping with Trump’s own minimization of the coronavirus’ toll.
Senior administration officials, speaking anonymously in a briefing with reporters, conceded that fully opening schools could lead to more infections but emphasized the lower threat to people younger than 30. They said damage could be mitigated if communities take steps to limit the spread and “double down in our commitment to protect the vulnerable.”
The advisers said Trump was not proposing to use federal funds to pressure local and state officials.
The issue is also tricky for Trump’s Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, given the apprehension from the teachers unions whose support is central to the Democratic Party. During a video conference with the National Education Association on Friday, Biden anticipated schools will use distance-learning “for a while longer,” and he echoed the union’s call for more money for safety measures.
Anita Cicero, deputy director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a specialist in pandemic preparedness, said, “There should be a lot of discussion, knowing that there will be outbreaks — what should the triggers be to close them again?”