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As schools prepare to reopen, a Catholic high school in Keene readies to open for the first time

James Crisman is excited to start his freshman year at Our Lady of Mercy Academy, a new Catholic high school set to open next month in downtown Keene.

“It’s one of the first times I’ve been really excited to go to school,” James, of Stoddard, said. “It just feels cool to be one of the first students at a brand-new school.”

He’s especially looking forward to courses in the humanities, like philosophy and theology, which he hasn’t taken before, and which are core parts of the new school’s curriculum. He’s also eager for the small class sizes at Our Lady of Mercy, which is on track to enroll between 20 and 40 students in its inaugural year.

“I kind of like that you’ll get to know each kid better than if there were many, many, many that you were interacting with each day,” James, who recently graduated from Keene Middle School, said Friday.

And as anticipation for the coming academic year grows in students like James, the leaders of the new school are busy preparing to open in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Obviously, opening up a brand-new school is extremely difficult, and requires a great amount of time, anytime,” Principal Chris Smith said. “In this scenario, obviously that has been even more difficult.”

But Smith, who is also the principal of St. Joseph Regional School, the pre-K-through-8th-grade school on the same campus, added that the new high school has some advantages opening in a time defined by social distancing measures and other pandemic protocols. For starters, Our Lady of Mercy is enrolling only freshmen and sophomores this first year.

“So, that is so much easier to manage than managing a hundred students walking in that have never been here before,” Smith said.

And when the new school year begins on Aug. 28, Our Lady of Mercy will have access to all three floors of the Clairvaux Center at 161 Main St., which previously housed a convent and offices for the Parish of the Holy Spirit. The building has never been a school before, but thus far has required only minor modifications, like crash bars on the doors and an identification system, to bring it in line with state school security requirements.

“For a small private school, it’s perfect. And that’s what we’re going to be,” Smith said. “... A lot of the rooms are great sizes already, and it’s been kept in really good condition, so we feel fortunate.”

Along with these renovations and the usual back-to-school preparations, Smith and other school leaders also have had to hire about a half-dozen new teachers for the high school, all while preparing to reopen St. Joseph, which has about 180 students and approximately 27 staff members.

St. Joseph transitioned to remote learning on March 13, and remained that way for the rest of the school year. The Diocese of Manchester, which comprises the entire state of New Hampshire, announced last week that Catholic schools statewide will reopen for in-person instruction in the fall.

“Since March, many parents have struggled to balance their own telecommuting with assisting in the education of their children at home,” Diocese Superintendent David A. Thibault said in a news release. “Teachers have missed the one-on-one interaction with their students, and students have missed their teachers and friends. Everyone involved rose to the challenge but we recognize that remote learning is not ideal.”

Both St. Joseph and Our Lady of Mercy plan to welcome students back for in-person classes this year, Smith said, but all families at both schools will have the option to choose remote learning instead. And the remote instruction, Smith added, would be different than the past spring semester. The schools are working on equipping each classroom with a webcam that would allow for synchronous instruction for students learning remotely.

“It would be a regular day of school, at home,” Smith said. “You could ask questions, raise your hand, interact with the teacher. That’s different than the way we had it before, but that’s what I’m looking at for the fall.”

The schools are still working on a final plan for returning to in-person instruction, based on guidance from the diocese and the state, along with input from a committee made up of school officials, health care professionals, teachers and parents. Smith said he hopes to share that plan with families and staff in early August.

Janene Crisman, James’ mother, said she and her husband, Ted, feel comfortable and confident sending him to Mercy Academy, and sending two of their other children — Liam, a seventh-grader, and Francesca, who is going into fourth grade — back to St. Joseph.

“I just think that they can meet all the standards quite easily,” she said, noting the small class sizes, and the two buildings the schools can utilize. Plus, Janene added, her kids want to go back to school.

“My St. Joe’s kids really like their teachers, and they miss just the kind of spirit, camaraderie [and] energy of the school,” she said.

And with James, one of the Crismans’ eight children, starting ninth grade, Janene said her family is glad to have the choice to send their children to a nearby Catholic high school.

“We like that there’s an option,” she said. “It is nice to have options, and for years we didn’t ever really feel like there was this kind of option for us.”

Before Our Lady of Mercy, the closest Catholic high schools in New Hampshire were in Concord and Newport. St. Michael’s, a Catholic school in Brattleboro, offers kindergarten through 12th grade.

In its inaugural year and beyond, Our Lady of Mercy aims to offer a rigorous college preparatory curriculum, including foreign language requirements and a focus on the arts and music, Smith said. In the future, the school also plans to offer students the chance to take classes at Keene State College, River Valley Community College and the Cheshire Career Center.

“We’re really interested in providing a safe and positive environment for students to grow, and want to learn, an environment that focuses on being free to learn,” Smith said.

Our Lady of Mercy also hopes to capitalize on its location, and encourage students to engage in the community.

“We’re in such an awesome location right on Main Street in town,” said Jennifer Marshall, the director of advancement at St. Joseph and Our Lady of Mercy. “There’s a lot of opportunity that that opens up for our students.”

For example, Our Lady of Mercy students will be required to take a community-service-based course called The Mercy Project, which will include instruction from teachers, clergy, business owners, city officials and other community servants. At the end of the four-year Mercy Project track, students will form their own nonprofit organizations to meet a need they have identified within the community, Smith said.

When Our Lady of Mercy expands to four classes in two years, the school will have capacity for about 125 students, Smith said. Applications for the 2020-21 school year are still open, and available on the school’s website.

The high school will encourage students in the inaugural class to create their own extracurricular activities based on their interests, Smith added.

“I don’t want to create a chess club if no students want to play chess,” he said. “So really, this first group of students that are here will really help define what that looks like.”

Our Lady of Mercy likely won’t offer any athletics right away, but students will be able to compete at their local public high school, Smith said. Our Lady of Mercy will provide transportation to practices and games for those student athletes.

Tuition for the coming school year at Our Lady of Mercy is $8,000 per student, but optional fundraising could reduce the cost to $6,300. And, Smith added, students’ tuition will lock in based on the cost their freshman year.

“It just is going to make it easier to budget for the families,” Smith said. “... And so we really wanted to make it something that, if you’re interested in this kind of private education, that it would be affordable.”


State_regional
Sununu vetoes net-metering expansion, signs onto temporary voting change

Gov. Chris Sununu added to his record number of vetoes this legislative session Friday, rejecting bills dealing with energy policy, unemployment benefits and privacy laws. Here’s a rundown.

Among the vetoed bills was one that outlined a plan to reallocate New Hampshire’s revenue from the region’s carbon-capping program. It’s the third time in as many years that Sununu has blocked this same proposal.

It would have ended the residential rebate from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. The money would have gone instead toward energy efficiency programs for low- and fixed-income residents.

Sununu said he’s happy with the current allocations from RGGI, which include some rebates and some efficiency funding. Supporters of the change say energy efficiency is critical to fighting climate change ... and is chronically underfunded in New Hampshire.

Sununu vetoed one bill but signed another bill dealing with expanding net energy metering in New Hampshire. Net metering lets customers who generate their own power — usually with solar — sell the excess back to the grid to lower their bills.

The proposal Sununu vetoed Friday would have increased the limit on the size of small energy systems that can take advantage of more net metering benefits.

Sununu has repeatedly blocked a bipartisan plan to expand large-scale net metering for towns and businesses. He endorsed several alternate proposals this year, but advocates said they wouldn’t do enough and the Democratic-led Legislature sent them for interim study.

Sununu signed one related bill Friday that extends net metering to customers of municipal aggregators and independent energy suppliers.

Sununu vetoed a bill that would have expanded unemployment benefits in New Hampshire.

Sununu says the proposal, backed by state Senate Democrats, would interfere with current coronavirus aid programs. And he warned it would cause the state to lose millions in aid and jeopardize coronavirus unemployment for people who currently receive it. Supporters of the bill noted that it contained a clause that would have eliminated those provisions if the federal government found the state out of compliance.

In his veto message, Sununu also echoed criticism from businesses, saying the bill would have burdened them with new costs.

The state’s unemployment rate stood at 14.5 percent as of late June — higher than in neighboring Vermont and Maine.

Also meeting with a veto stamp Friday was a bill that would have barred the disclosure of public employees’ home address, email address and telephone numbers.

In his veto message, Sununu said the bill would have created a carve-out to allow workers’ private information to be disclosed to labor unions.

“While I fully support providing public employees with more control and privacy over their personal information,” Sununu wrote, “this bill would effectively give one class of private organizations — labor unions — exclusive access to that information.”

Sununu rejected another bill related to nursing homes and child care. The bill would have allocated $25 million in federal funding for long-term care facilities and $10 million for child care.

But Sununu said the measure was well-intentioned, but redundant. He said $30 million has already been earmarked for long-term care, with additional money going to weekly stipends for workers. Another $25 million has gone to child care centers, though not to the scholarship program for low-income families that the bill would have funded.

Democrats criticized the veto, noting that the bill also would have created an independent review of long-term care facilities.

The governor signed into law nearly half a dozen other bills Friday, including one measure that allows temporary modifications to absentee voter registration and ballot applications in response to the coronavirus pandemic.


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Keene State exploring plan to test wastewater for COVID-19

In the ongoing battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, Keene State College is exploring an unlikely addition to its arsenal: sewage.

The college is working on a plan to test wastewater for the presence of the novel coronavirus, which could serve as an early warning sign of a spike in the number of cases, both on campus and in the community.

“Once you get an idea of what the baseline is, if you see a trend that’s rising ... it’s [an] early warning system,” Associate Professor of Public Health Jeanelle Boyer, who is helping lead the project, said. “And hopefully you can implement some measures that would reduce the spread of the virus before it has a chance to spread faster.

“So, since the virus tends to spread exponentially, if you can get a week, that could be hundreds of cases,” she continued. “It really could make a big difference.”

The plan, which would involve testing samples from sewer lines that serve a broad swath of the student and city population, still needs approval from both Keene State and the city, since researchers would need access to Keene’s sewage lines. But, Boyer said, if the project gets the green light, it could be up and running by the fall, and would yield usable results almost immediately.

Keene State students are scheduled to return to campus in two waves the week of Aug. 24.

“Once we get the first two weeks of a baseline set to see what is normal, we could start to see some fluctuations this fall, potentially right away,” she said.

Boyer added that the current research indicates wastewater-based epidemiology, the technique’s scientific name, can alert communities to COVID-19’s presence up to two weeks before infected people would begin presenting symptoms. That sort of early indication could give the college, and entire community, valuable information, said Wayne Hartz, a professor of safety and occupational health applied sciences, who is also leading the project.

“Regular water testing provides another avenue of information through which the college and city can assess the risk within our population,” Hartz said in a statement. “It is another layer of protection for the college community and Keene residents.”

The data collected through wastewater testing could, for instance, help city and college officials inform their deployment of resources to fight the virus, such as individual tests.

“I don’t want to say that you would do this instead of testing individuals, but they work well together,” Boyer said. “So what I would envision is ... doing this as monitoring, and then if you would see a spike, then that would warrant doing more individual testing to try to narrow down and find the individuals who actually have it. And then you could implement contact tracing and isolation and quarantine — these other measures are known, effective public health responses to the virus.”

The process for testing wastewater is fairly straightforward, Boyer added. Researchers already know that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be shed in fecal matter, so the city would just need to collect small samples of wastewater and send them to a commercial lab, which would test the samples using essentially the same technique as individual tests.

For the first two weeks, daily samples would be required to establish a baseline for the virus’ presence in the community. After that, researchers would need to test samples only once or twice a week to monitor for potential spikes.

Right now, Boyer said, the college is looking at taking samples from two points on the city’s sewer line, one which would give a sample of the community overall, and another that would focus on Keene State’s campus and the surrounding neighborhood, where many students live.

“We really see this as a great possibility to work together with the city, because the city and the campus are really so intertwined,” she said. “Our students are out there in the community, the community comes to campus. And especially with something like a contagious disease ... if we have cases on campus, it could potentially impact the community, and if we have cases in the community, it could impact the campus.”

The current proposal involves Keene State providing most of the funding for the project, while the city would collect and send the wastewater samples, Boyer said. Keene State spokeswoman Kelly Ricaurte said Thursday the college estimates the project would cost between $52,000 and $60,000.

In the long run, though, wastewater testing could reduce overall costs, since it would allow college and city leaders to be more prepared and deliberate in their response to COVID-19, Boyer said.

“The earlier response you have, the more proactive you can be in your measures and your response to the pandemic,” she said. “So I could see this potentially giving us a little time in terms of knowing if the virus is in the community. And I could also see it, in the long term, potentially saving money.

“It might relieve some of the burden on testing so many individuals,” she continued. “And we couldn’t get away from that completely, but instead of testing whole populations individually, we could monitor with wastewater and then test in targeted ways when needed.”

Wastewater-based epidemiology is not new, Boyer added, nor is it unique to the United States. Countries such as Australia and France have used the technique to look out for infectious diseases in their populations, Boyer said. Israel used it to detect and quell a polio outbreak in 2013, according to the World Health Organization.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, more countries and communities around the world are looking to implement sewage testing. In a June 12 article in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, a group of 60 scientists called for “a global effort to coordinate methodologies and data-sharing to maximize the yields of [wastewater-based epidemiology] for the current and future outbreaks of disease.”

Closer to home, wastewater from Boston and 42 other eastern Massachusetts communities is now being tested for COVID-19, the Boston Globe reported Wednesday.

“It’s definitely picking up speed throughout the world and the country,” Boyer said of the technique.

And if Keene State and the city join this growing trend, Boyer added, the technique could be a valuable resource both during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

“I think [wastewater testing] hasn’t been capitalized upon,” she said. “I think it’s something that might even be useful for other outbreaks in the future, if communities get a system up and running.”