Back to school

From rearranging classrooms for adequate physical distancing to adjusting lesson plans, local school district leaders say the next two weeks will be busy as they prepare to resume full in-person instruction April 19.

That’s when Gov. Chris Sununu has ordered all K-12 public schools statewide to hold in-person classes five days a week, a decision he announced last Thursday. Families who are not comfortable sending their children back to the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic can still opt for remote learning, Sununu added.

Even before the governor’s announcement, though, N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 — which covers Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland — had already begun planning for a full reopening in all of its districts before the end of the academic year, Superintendent Robert Malay said Monday.

“It’s what we’ve been working towards anyway; it’s just accelerated and put more pressure on our buildings and our staff,” Malay said of Sununu’s order.

As of Monday, two SAU 29 districts, Marlborough and Marlow, had returned for full in-person instruction, while the remainder are operating on hybrid schedules that have students in class between two and four days per week, Malay said. Most districts throughout the Monadnock Region have students in classes at least four days per week, and some were in the process of fully reopening before Sununu’s announcement.

For the SAU 29 districts still in hybrid models, including Keene, Malay said the biggest challenge in the coming weeks will be for staff members to adapt their lesson plans from ones designed for hybrid instruction to those more apt for a full complement of in-person students.

“And that takes time and planning to map out what that will look like for the remainder of the school year, which is not uncommon, but we’re going to have to do that in a shorter time frame than we were initially planning to do,” Malay said.

He added that, before Sununu’s order, SAU 29 had been eyeing May 3 — the day students return from a weeklong spring break — as a potential date for fully reopening schools. Without that extra week to prepare for the switch, Malay said, it will be even more difficult for teachers to adjust their plans on top of their current workloads, and for SAU 29 facilities staff to move several hundred pieces of furniture to ensure that students and staff can maintain three feet of distance throughout the day. (The CDC on March 19 lowered its distancing recommendation in schools from six to three feet, so long as other prevention measures like mask-wearing remain in place.)

Physical space within the schools is also the biggest barrier for a return to full in-person classes in the Monadnock Regional School District, Superintendent Lisa Witte told the school board at its March 16 meeting. Witte, who last week said she had no idea Sununu’s announcement was coming and expressed frustration at the surprise, declined Monday to discuss details before the board’s next meeting tonight, when members are expected to discuss reopening plans. But she said the district is “continually discussing ways that we can meet the needs of all students and what resources we can use or shift.”

Witte has said many classrooms in the Monadnock district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — could accommodate three feet of physical distancing.

But according to her presentation to the school board, all schools within the district, where students currently attend in-person classes two days a week, have at least one room where it will be difficult to maintain three feet of distancing with all students in class. Additionally, Monadnock Regional Middle/High School in Swanzey Center would need to add an additional lunch period to ensure three feet of distance in the cafeteria, according to the presentation.

Physical distancing is also the top concern for a full reopening in the Fall Mountain Regional School District — which covers Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Langdon and Walpole — Superintendent Lori Landry wrote in a message to families and staff posted on the district’s website Friday.

“Our building administrators are identifying [problem] areas that need to be addressed, such as our hallways and cafeterias,” she wrote. “Additional plexiglass barriers are being installed in classrooms and cafeterias to maintain safety. As we did in the fall, outdoor tents will be installed over the next several weeks to provide additional space for classes.”

Landry, who could not be reached for comment Monday, added in her letter that Fall Mountain may need to change its transportation schedules before fully reopening to address the increased number of students on buses. Meanwhile, all of the district’s buses have installed air purifiers, Landry wrote, and their windows will be cracked to increase air circulation.

All of these considerations make for a busy and challenging two weeks before the switch to in-person classes, Malay wrote in a message for families and staff posted on the SAU 29 website Monday afternoon.

“Make no mistake about it, this will be a tremendous effort by everyone involved in order for it to be as successful as possible,” he wrote. “There are many moving parts and details that will need to be addressed along the way that our staff will be working through over the next couple of weeks.”

Despite the tasks that lie ahead, though, Malay said he believes SAU 29 staff members can accomplish them, and all schools can reopen safely on April 19.

“I’m confident that we’re going to get there,” he said. “And I’m confident that when we do, we’ll continue to work on how we can make it better.”

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