20210504-LOC-BacktoSchool

From left, Weston Whittier, 5, Huckson Bradley, 6, and Kaleb Arlen, 5, play on the playground with their masks on at Mount Caesar Elementary School in Swanzey Center on the first day back in school full time in May. Monadnock Superintendent Lisa Witte says no mask mandate is planned when students and staff return this fall.

As public school districts throughout the Monadnock Region prepare to return to classes this fall, local education leaders say there’s one metric not factored into their reopening plans: COVID-19 vaccination status.

“It is not a required vaccination by law. That could be because it’s only under emergency use [authorization] for now, and that might change,” said Robert Malay, superintendent of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29. “But for now, it is not a required one, so we don’t have any expectation of requiring anyone to provide evidence that they have been vaccinated or have not been vaccinated because it’s not mandated by law.”

If that does change at some point, Malay said SAU 29 — which covers Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland — would begin tracking staff and student vaccinations to be in compliance with the law.

“But right now, it is strictly an individual or a family’s decision to decide whether or not they want to become vaccinated,” he said.

Similarly, the Monadnock Regional School District — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — is not monitoring vaccination status, Superintendent Lisa Witte said. She also pointed to guidance from the N.H. Department of Education that prohibits schools from mandating a COVID-19 shot or developing different requirements for vaccinated versus unvaccinated students and staff.

“Tethering specific privileges to vaccination status — such as not wearing a mask or granting access to specific areas of the building — is functionally the same as requiring the vaccination for attendance,” the document, dated June 7, reads. “It is a ‘back door’ mechanism for exercising the authority that the legislature has retained for itself and for DHHS, namely, requiring what vaccinations are required for school attendance.”

Gov. Chris Sununu on Friday signed into law the so-called “medical freedom in immunization” bill that restricts the state from requiring a COVID-19 vaccine to access public spaces and services, including schools. The state does, however, maintain a list of immunizations required for school attendance, including shots for polio, hepatitis B and chicken pox. New Hampshire has not added the COVID-19 vaccine to that list.

Based on this state guidance, Witte said, Monadnock’s reopening plan does not include vaccination status as a factor for determining health and safety measures.

“We are not permitted to have different ‘rules’ for students who are vaccinated and those who are not, so tracking who is and who is not would not be necessary,” she said in an email.

In the Hinsdale School District, Superintendent Wayne Woolridge said administrators are not officially tracking vaccination status. But, he added, the district knows that approximately 90 percent of its staff has received a COVID-19 shot at vaccine clinics that the school system organized in May and June.

“So we’ve got pretty good coverage as far as vaccination,” Woolridge said. “... But we don’t plan to record vaccinations for staff or students. We feel at this point, unless we’re directed by the [school] board, that we would not do that.”

Local colleges and universities, meanwhile, are keeping track of who has been inoculated. Franklin Pierce University in Rindge will require students and employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to campus for the fall semester. Students, faculty and staff will need to provide a copy of their COVID-19 vaccination record card to the university or provide documentation to request an exemption from the vaccine requirement for medical or religious reasons.

And while Keene State College, like other public universities in the state, is not currently mandating a coronavirus vaccine for the fall semester, the school is requesting students and staff report their vaccination status via a confidential online form.

“Your choice to voluntarily report your vaccination status will help us protect the health and safety of you, your family, friends, classmates, and all members of our campus community,” a message on the Keene State website reads. “We will hold your information in confidence and use it only to establish our campus health and safety protocols.”

According to Keene State’s website, students who are vaccinated by the time they return to campus won’t need to quarantine when exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19. The college is still developing its fall reopening plan but expects the list of benefits for fully vaccinated people to grow before the beginning of the school year.

And as area K-12 schools prepare to reopen in a little more than a month, they will continue to consider updated state and federal recommendations in their plans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday issued updated mask guidance that calls for universal mask-wearing in all K-12 schools. The state Department of Health and Human Services, meanwhile, encourages face coverings in classrooms, but the education department leaves those decisions up to individual districts.

The Monadnock school board has voted to follow guidance from the state health department and not the CDC, Witte said. The current version of the district’s reopening plan makes masks optional for all students and staff. Any change to that plan would need approval from the board, which is scheduled to meet next on Aug. 17.

The Hinsdale district, meanwhile, has not approved a final reopening plan, Woolridge said. He expects the district to publish its recommendations by early next week and for the board to vote on the plan at its Aug. 18 meeting.

“So by waiting until the 18th of August, we feel we can better determine what the buildings will look like,” he said. “... So we want to wait a few more weeks before we claim we have a plan that makes sense.”

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