Ready for reopening

Custodians John Kennedy, left, and Phil Roberts practice physical distancing while cleaning desks in a classroom in Fuller Elementary School in Keene in preparation of reopening.

Most students in the Monadnock Region will return to classrooms in the fall, at least for a few days a week.

When they are in school, students and staff will be required to wear masks in almost all situations. Classrooms are being reconfigured and other spaces are being reimagined, to ensure everyone can maintain physical distancing.

Before coming to school, students and staff will be expected to check themselves for COVID-19 symptoms and to stay home if sick.

These are among the key takeaways following a week full of school board meetings, many stretching late into the night and centered on passionate community conversations, during which district leaders voted on what the new academic year will look like in local schools.

No perfect plan

Public schools statewide transitioned to remote learning in mid-March due to concern over the COVID-19 pandemic and remained that way through the end of the school year. After Gov. Chris Sununu released the state’s reopening guidance on July 14, largely leaving final decisions up to individual school districts, public schools throughout the Monadnock Region have been working toward finalizing their reopening plans.

The school board meetings last week marked the culmination of this process for many area districts. But school leaders have made it clear that their reopening plans are likely to change in response to the latest public health guidelines and how the novel coronavirus continues to spread in New Hampshire. And even before school board members cast their votes on reopening plans, which were based on months of surveys and state and federal guidance, school administrators emphasized that a perfect reopening plan does not exist.

“I can not stress enough that there will be absolutely no decision that will be acceptable for everyone,” N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 Superintendent Robert Malay wrote last Monday in a message on the SAU 29 website. “Each person has their own perception of what our schools should or should not do.

“There are large numbers of people that are on complete polar ends of the conversation regarding what schools should do in the fall,” Malay continued. “There are some that feel schools should be 100% remote and some that feel schools should be 100% in person and others that fall in between.”

The majority of local school districts have chosen to begin the new year with a mix of in-person and remote classes, which they are calling a hybrid model. The SAU 29 reopening plan calls for students to be divided into two groups, with half attending in-person classes on Mondays and Thursdays and the other half in school on Tuesdays and Fridays. On Wednesdays, all students will learn remotely while schools undergo a deep cleaning.

But after a seven-hour meeting Thursday night, only two SAU 29 member districts, Keene and Harrisville, approved this hybrid model. The Keene School Board gave the green light only after voting to push back the first day of school to Sept. 10.

Two other SAU 29 districts, Marlow and Westmoreland, will begin the year fully remotely while they continue to develop hybrid models their school boards think work better for them than the SAU 29 comprehensive plan. The remaining SAU 29 districts — Chesterfield, Marlborough and Nelson — have delayed their final decisions on school reopening, taking a few extra days to think about, and possibly make changes to, the SAU 29 plan.

The Monadnock Regional School District, which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy, will start the school year with a hybrid model similar to SAU 29’s. The Monadnock board last Tuesday approved a plan that calls for roughly half of the district’s students to attend in-person classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, while the other half will be in school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. No students will be in school on Fridays, but teachers will be available for virtual meetings, and students can work on assignments and use other online learning tools.

Meanwhile, the ConVal Regional School District’s reopening plan, which the board approved unanimously last Tuesday, will divide high school students into two groups, which will attend in-person classes in alternating weeks, rather than days. One cohort will include students from Antrim, Bennington, Francestown, Greenfield and Hancock. Students from Dublin, Peterborough, Sharon and Temple will comprise the other cohort.

And in Winchester, where the school board voted Friday to start the year with a hybrid model, administrators said space limitations may mean some grades have to be divided into four groups that each attend school one day per week.

Some smaller districts plan to bring students back into buildings more often. Hinsdale students, for instance, will be in school five days a week, according to a plan the school board approved last Wednesday. In classes too large to maintain physical distancing, both at Hinsdale Elementary and the middle/high school, students will be divided into two groups, half of whom will spend some time in the classroom, and some time learning remotely, but doing so from elsewhere in the school building.

Need to remain flexible

The Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District plans to bring students back to school four days a week, but buildings will close on Wednesdays for deep cleaning while students learn remotely. The Jaffrey-Rindge School Board approved the district’s reopening framework last Monday, following a spirited public comment portion of the meeting.

During that meeting, Jaffrey-Rindge Superintendent Reuben Duncan stressed that the district’s plan needs to be flexible moving forward.

“This is a framework,” Duncan said. “It’s not something that’s set in stone, per se. But it helps us to make decisions going forward.”

Nearly all local reopening plans include guidelines for when schools could return to full in-person instruction, or would need to transition to fully remote learning, depending upon how many COVID-19 cases are present in Cheshire County. And as the new school year approaches, with a number of districts pushing back their start dates to mid-September to give themselves more time to implement their reopening plans, adaptability remains a key component of all of the plans.

“We recognize the current health emergency has changed the traditional delivery of education in our schools,” Fall Mountain Regional School District Superintendent Lori Landry wrote in a letter on the district’s website.

Fall Mountain, which covers Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Langdon and Walpole, plans to return to school under a hybrid model similar to other local districts and alter the plan based on changing public health conditions throughout the area.

“We will continue to monitor any changes in the health guidance as provided by the NH Department of Health and Human Services as well as the Center[s] for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” Landry continued. “Modifications to our reopening plans may be necessary and we will communicate any changes as decisions are made.”

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