JAFFREY — The Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District will continue with remote learning at least through Jan. 19, the school board decided Monday night.
Students district-wide have been learning remotely since mid-November, following several COVID-19 cases at Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School and Conant High School and amid rising coronavirus cases in the region and state. At Monday night’s school board meeting, members unanimously approved a plan to reopen schools two weeks after the end of winter break, when classes will return to the district’s hybrid model in which students attend in-person classes four days a week.
“I think the 19th is maybe not what people had hoped for, but I think it’s probably the best choice to keep people safe,” Board Chair Marcea Gustafson-Belletete of Rindge said during the meeting, which drew about 140 participants on Zoom.
Superintendent Reuben Duncan on Monday presented the board with five options to return to some in-person instruction, ranging from bringing students back as soon as next Monday to reopening schools on Jan. 4., when students are scheduled to return from Christmas break. Duncan ultimately recommended the board adopt the plan to resume the district’s hybrid model on Jan. 19.
“I think that Jan. 19, 2021, makes a whole lot of sense,” Duncan said. “It’s the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. Day [holiday]. It gives a concrete timeline. It takes into consideration travel. It gives our area more time to implement the appropriate precautions that we need.”
Duncan added that the plan the board adopted could allow for some of the people most at risk for contracting COVID-19 time to receive vaccinations for the disease, which state officials have said are scheduled to begin arriving in New Hampshire next week.
“In-person instruction is the goal. I think that’s been clear from the beginning,” he said. “The school board has acknowledged in public that that has been the case, as well. But we also need to make certain that we are making the best decisions not only to make sure we’re getting back in person, but that we’re getting back there safely for all.”
District leaders said they will continue to monitor COVID-19 case data between now and Jan. 19, and the plan could be altered based on the changing public health situation.
“I think that we should at least give people the concrete date of Jan. 19 and tell them that we’re planning on going back in person on the 19th, but don’t bet on it because things might change between now and then,” Board Vice Chair Charles Eicher of Rindge said.
The plan the board adopted drew a mixed reaction from the parents and staff members who spoke during the meeting. Rindge resident Megan Burleson, who said she has five kids in the district and teaches in another district, was in favor of returning to in-person learning on Jan. 19.
“I think Jan. 19 is the smart thing to do,” she said. “I know we talk about kids being safe in school, and that’s all good and fine, but staffing in itself is a nightmare. Subs are a nightmare. And I just think it’s the smart thing to do to be safe.”
But other parents, like Erin Chamberlain of Jaffrey, said they wanted students to return to in-person classes sooner.
“Jan. 19 seems like a very long time,” Chamberlain said. “I’m very lucky, my child does well remote, but she doesn’t like it. I don’t think she’s getting the best education that she would as if she was in person. And I just hope that we’re looking at that, too.”
The board’s decision brings Jaffrey-Rindge into line with most other school districts in the Monadnock Region, which have transitioned to remote learning through the holidays.
N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 — which covers Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland — announced Nov. 13 that its schools would switch to remote learning from Nov. 30 through at least Jan. 4 due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Cheshire County.
Other districts, including ConVal and Fall Mountain, which had been operating under hybrid models, are operating remotely until Jan. 19. The Winchester School District has been operating remotely since Nov. 16, and the school board there is scheduled to reconsider returning to a hybrid model at its Jan. 7 meeting.
Meanwhile, the Monadnock Regional School District — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — continues to operate under a hybrid model, with students in school two days a week and learning remotely the rest of the week. Board members there cited the low incidence of cases within the schools and the benefits of students receiving some in-person instruction as the primary motivations for sticking with the hybrid model.
The Jaffrey-Rindge board on Monday also approved plans to move forward with winter sports and other extracurricular activities, and provide additional in-person support for students who need it during remote learning, such as students with disabilities or those who lack adequate Internet access.
The district has identified “pods” of students who need extra support, and begun bringing them into school for two half-day sessions each week, while still participating in remote classes the rest of the week. Jennifer Horne, Jaffrey-Rindge’s director of student services, said Monday that about 41 students began attending these in-person sessions last week.
As remote learning continues, additional students are slated to receive extra support, too, but Horne said staffing levels are limiting how many children can access these services.
“Those that we have been able to bring in, staffing is playing a huge, huge role in how we determine how many kids can come in, and where,” she said.
Based on current staffing levels, Horne said the district can bring in about 15 more kids to Jaffrey Grade School, seven to Rindge Memorial School and 30 to Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School/Conant High School.