HINSDALE – The Hinsdale School Board has delayed voting on its draft reopening plan for the 2021-2022 school year until next week, after board members expressed concerns about the level of detail in the plan.
The decision came after about two hours of discussion and debate by board members, school staff and town residents. In the end, the board decided the plan left too much up in the air and set a meeting for Tuesday at 6 p.m. to continue to the conversation and create a more detailed proposal.
“This is so vague, I’m not comfortable approving this as a reopening plan because it doesn’t say anything,” said Board Member Julia Kilelee. She added that she was “kind of upset we’re getting this 10 days before school starts.”
Hinsdale schools reopen for the 2021-22 academic year on Aug. 31.
While there were questions and concerns about a number of topics, two seemed to be on the forefront of the conversation: remote learning and masks.
As in several local school districts, as well as those around the country, mask requirements have come under fire in Hinsdale. The controversy has centered on whether the school district should require students to mask up or leave the choice to parents.
Superintendent Wayne Woolridge said the district was originally planning not to include a mask requirement in its reopening plans for the coming school year. But then the recent increase in COVID-19 cases — fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant — forced them to reconsider.
“We want kids out of masks,” Woolridge said. “We also want our kids in school; we don’t want them in quarantine, certainly don’t want them sick.” He added that the district administration is recommending that the school year at least start with a mask requirement.
The current draft of the plan requires masks for everyone age 2 and older and includes masking for indoor sports, and when on buses — a federal requirement. It also encourages social distancing and outdoor learning as much as possible.
While the majority of commenters — several of whom were Hinsdale teachers — were in support of the mask requirement, there were a handful who objected to it. Jason and Sarah Kolakoski presented a petition that they said was signed by more than 150 members of the community who are opposed to the requirement, and they suggested that prolonged mask-wearing can have physical and mental health repercussions.
“You’re depriving these children of speech language skills,” said Sarah Kolakoski, who said she’s a speech language pathologist. “And the social impact of not seeing facial cues, that is ridiculous.”
Board member Holly Kennedy pointed out that window masks have been employed in this circumstance recently, which appear to have helped alleviate some of those concerns.
Other commenters commended the mask requirement, saying that while nobody wants to wear one, doing so for the sake of public health is the right decision. Several pointed out that children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated and remain still vulnerable to the virus.
A handful of teachers who spoke said it would make their lives easier if the district had an “all or nothing” mask policy and that last year, their students generally had no issues complying with a mask requirement.
“My kindergarten kids did not even think about wearing the mask. It was part of their daily routine,” said teacher Paula Snide. “I had to remind them to take their masks off for recess because it was just part of their day. They didn’t complain.”
Along with a mask requirement, the plan calls for five days of in-person instruction weekly, with no remote-learning option. However, several board members and residents questioned what would happen if cases continued to increase.
During the worst of the pandemic, New Hampshire schools were required to transition to 100 percent remote learning, but many schools implemented a hybrid program last year to decrease the number of people in school buildings at a given time.
The board acknowledged that right now there are no protocols in place if the district decided to transition to remote learning. Members agreed the matter should be discussed when they reconvene on Tuesday.
“As the plan is right now, I’m in support of most of it,” Kennedy said. “But I’d like to see more detail.”