Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut doesn’t think New Hampshire will need to go back to a statewide remote learning model, as districts gear up to reopen school buildings.
But with the severity of the coronavirus still in flux, it could still happen on an individual school level, Edelblut added.
“Of course I can’t predict the future. Not sure what the future will bring. But my sense today would be that we will not find ourselves again in the circumstance where statewide we have to go to remote instruction and support,” he said.
“I suspect … that there may be incidences that happen in our institutions that will result in a transition to some type of remote instruction model. And that could be for some kind of a classroom or wing of a classroom, or perhaps even a school building.”
The commissioner was facing a panel of Democratic and Republican state representatives and senators at a joint hearing Tuesday morning, a week after the state released a 54-page guidance document to encourage schools to reopen.
Addressing lawmakers, Edelblut defended the reopening guidelines, which have been criticized by some teachers and unions in recent days for not providing ample staff protections and not carrying funding.
And he stood by the decision not to impose a statewide mask requirement for New Hampshire schools. The state’s guidelines instead strongly suggest masks be used by all staff and by students when appropriate.
That approach provides flexibility to school districts to put in “realistic mitigation strategies” while still underscoring the effectiveness of masks, Edelblut said. Ahead of the release of the guidelines, school superintendents had given differing feedback as to whether they thought a full mask mandate was feasible for their schools, Edelblut said.
The commissioner also argued that masks may not always be universally appropriate, pointing to studies that suggest children could be more tempted to touch their mouth and face if they were wearing masks, which could spread the virus more.
“And then those little hands that have now been touching that saturated mask from the aspirations of that child in a little class are going to again be touching many surfaces in that room,” Edelblut said.
In general, the commissioner said, no one mitigation approach is a “silver bullet” for the virus, with each one a layer of “Swiss cheese” with holes and faults, borrowing a metaphor from state epidemiologist Benjamin Chan.
“Each district is going to build their Swiss cheese with the mitigation factors that make sense for their communities, to mitigate risk to a level that their communities are comfortable,” Edelblut said.
That response prompted skepticism from Sen. Jon Morgan, a Brentwood Democrat.
“Something that made me concerned and alarmed is that the information that we do know is that masking is one of the most important mitigation techniques that we are aware of,” he said. “This seems to be the most important part of that layered approach, and it seems as if we’re choosing not to implement it.”
Edelblut disagreed. “The guidance does not in any way discourage,” he said. “It actually encourages quite strongly where another mitigation strategy, social distancing, is not possible.”