With the new school year about a month away in the Monadnock Region, local school districts say they’re closely monitoring the spread of the more-contagious delta variant of the novel coronavirus as they consider their reopening plans.
So far, though, most area school leaders say their districts aren’t making any definite changes on decisions like whether students and staff will need to wear masks in the classroom this fall. Currently, mask policies vary throughout local school districts.
“It’s that game of trying to hold off as long as you can to make sure you have all the information you need to make a decision, but also not waiting so close to the start of the school year that people don’t necessarily have as much time to plan,” said Nick Handy, communications coordinator for the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District, which starts the new academic year Aug. 31.
The Jaffrey-Rindge School Board discussed the district’s reopening framework at its meeting Monday night. The district’s ad hoc reopening committee — made up of staff members, administrators and parents — that drafted the plan is scheduled to meet again next week to consider any recommendations for updating the framework ahead of the board’s next meeting Aug. 16, when members could consider any changes.
Ultimately, Superintendent Reuben Duncan said the Jaffrey-Rindge district will need to continue to track COVID-19 transmission rates within the two communities, and potentially adjust its reopening plan accordingly. The current plan does not require students and staff to wear masks in schools, though the document gives the school board and administration flexibility to change that based on updated public health data.
“Basically, in the end, our decision-making moving forward is we have to ask the question: ‘What’s our risk tolerance,’ “ Duncan said. “What is the impact, for instance, of not wearing a mask if high levels of COVID-19 and the variants, the delta variant, transmission occurs?”
In the ConVal School District, Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders said she regularly meets with the district’s COVID-19 monitoring team — which includes school administrators, local hospital staff and health experts — to review the latest regional data.
“So we’ll continue to do that,” she said. “Right now, we are not making any recommendations to change our current plan. We do consider the school district to be in the blue phase. I don’t know if that will change, or what we may change moving forward.”
ConVal’s reopening plan, which the school board approved in June, includes specific recommendations for four different phases depending on the level of COVID-19 transmission within the community, with blue being the lowest level.
For each phase, the reopening plan for ConVal — which covers Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough, Sharon and Temple — calls for following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services.
The CDC issued updated guidance last week that calls for universal mask-wearing in all K-12 schools. The state health department, meanwhile, encourages face coverings in classrooms, but the education department leaves those decisions up to individual districts.
“So obviously here we have some conflicting information, so that’s when we will look to the monitoring team and the school board and the administration to make some recommendations,” Rizzo Saunders said, noting that any changes would need the ConVal School Board’s approval before classes start Aug. 31. “And right now, we’re examining the situation to see if there will be any recommendations forthcoming.”
The Hinsdale School District published its draft reopening plan last Wednesday, with the school board there expected to vote on a final plan at its Aug. 18 meeting, ahead of the first day of classes Aug. 31. Hinsdale’s current plan calls for following the CDC’s latest guidance and mandating masks in schools for everyone 2 and older.
“Indeed, the increase of community transmission across the US, driven by the Delta variant, was a factor in determining our students’ most prudent in-person learning experience,” Superintendent Wayne Woolridge wrote in a letter to Hinsdale school families and staff.
Meanwhile, masks remain optional for N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 and the Monadnock Regional School District, according to their current reopening plans.
SAU 29 — which covers Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland — released its revised reopening plan Tuesday, based on public feedback to the draft plan published July 1, as well as collaboration with other school districts throughout the state. But, Superintendent Robert Malay wrote in a message on the SAU 29 website that the plan is still subject to change before the school year begins Sept. 1.
“We continuously monitor, capture and analyze the data that is released by [the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services] on a daily basis,” Malay wrote. “We know from experience that this may change and when necessary, we will adapt accordingly.”
In the Monadnock district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — the school board approved a reopening plan in June, and any alterations before the start of the year Aug. 30 would require board approval at the group’s next meeting Aug. 17. In the meantime, Superintendent Lisa Witte said school officials continue to follow the latest COVID-19 data and guidance to prepare for any potential recommended changes.
“I wouldn’t say it’s ‘just’ the Delta variant — it’s our overall responsibility to keep everyone safe and that drives everything we do,” Witte wrote in an email Tuesday. “In this case, it’s the entire pandemic that has required us to think about safety differently.”