20210811-LOC-KBOE

Keene Board of Education Chairman George Downing, right, speaks during Tuesday night’s board meeting at Keene High while N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 Superintendent Robert Malay, left, and Assistant Superintendent Ben White listen.

As fall approaches amid rising concerns about the delta variant of COVID-19, the Keene School District is sticking with SAU 29’s reopening plan — which makes masks optional for all students and staff — for now.

“We feel very, very comfortable with what we have right now, acknowledging that we have the ability to shift,” N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 Superintendent Robert Malay said during Tuesday night’s Keene Board of Education meeting. “The biggest question that we’re faced with right now — this is the biggest question — is to mask or not mask? And we have not changed any of our guidance at this point in time.”

But, Malay added, schools and child-care centers statewide are scheduled to meet via conference call today with state health officials, including state epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan. Malay said he expects Chan to address numerous topics, including masks in schools but did not want to predict whether the state might mandate them.

“I suspect it will be left to local entities to make that determination, but I also believe that they’re going to provide a decision-making, or tipping-point, metric that can be adopted and used to make those determinations,” Malay said.

The opening plan for SAU 29 — which covers Keene and six nearby towns — does not require masks in schools, but face coverings will be required on school buses, to comply with a federal mask mandate on public transportation.

The debate over whether schools should require masks this fall has taken center stage in many school-reopening discussions nationwide, as federal and state health officials have provided varying recommendations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated guidance late last month that calls for universal mask-wearing in all K-12 schools. The N.H. Department of Health and Human Services, meanwhile, encourages face coverings in classrooms, but the state education department leaves those decisions up to individual districts.

In New Hampshire, several large school districts, including Nashua and Concord, plan to require masks in the fall. Throughout the Monadnock Region, districts vary in their approach to the issue, with most, like SAU 29, making them optional.

Keene board Chairman George Downing, the lone board member wearing a mask at Tuesday’s meeting at Keene High School, said he trusts SAU 29 administrators to make the best decision for the Keene School District.

“We got through last year, under the leadership of Robb and his staff, with no transmission in our schools,” Downing said. “… His first priority, the first priority of all of our administrators, is our students and our staff. As has always been true, and this last year made very, very clear, there is no decision that fits everybody.”

Ultimately, Malay said, Keene school leaders will consider the latest local public health data to make decisions on what sort of COVID-19 protocols will be in place when the new academic year starts Sept. 1.

“We understand that things are happening all over the country that look scary, and are scary,” he said. “And I don’t disagree or dismiss that, but we have to make decisions based on what’s happening here, as opposed to what’s happening in Texas or Florida or places where it is really scary.”

If and when SAU 29 does change any aspects of its reopening plan, families can expect information in “rapid, multiple communications,” according to Malay.

“I think we’ve demonstrated the transparency over the last year and a half really well, with all of our updates,” he said. “So even if something came up between a [weekly] update, we would pump that out. We wouldn’t necessarily wait. So families can expect that we’re going to be on top of it, and I think we’ve demonstrated that ability.”

And while the Keene board did not make any changes to the reopening plan Tuesday night, the group did adopt a new policy that administrators wanted in place by the start of the year to help with health and safety measures. The new regulation, which passed 5-3, puts the responsibility on families to keep their children home if they are sick and gives schools the authority to send students home if they show symptoms of an illness.

“We’ve got to get back to the mindset that our schools are not where you dump your kids so you can go about your day,” Malay said. “If they’re not well, they shouldn’t be there. Same with our staff. If they’re not well, they shouldn’t be there. We’ve just got to keep that mantra moving forward and be diligent about it and make sure that sick people aren’t coming into our buildings.”

The new policy, Malay added, essentially replaces the health-screening questionnaire that all students and staff had to fill out before coming to school last year. If they answered “yes” to any questions about COVID-19 symptoms or exposure, they could not enter the school building that day.

Some board members expressed concern with the broad discretion the policy gives schools.

“This gives an awful lot of authority to a school nurse,” board member Kyle Macie said. Macie, Scott Ansevin-Allen and Rebecca Lancaster voted against the measure.

After adopting the new policy, the board did refer it to the policy committee to review it for any potential changes, which would come before the full board at a future meeting.

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.