20211109-LOC-Monadnock Filer

Monadnock Regional Middle High School in Swanzey Center.

The state board of education is set to hold a public hearing Wednesday to consider a proposal to remove remote learning as an option for schools when responding to COVID-19, but at least one local district opposes that plan.

The Monadnock Regional School District sent a letter late last month urging the state board of education to reject the new proposed rule, which would allow districts to implement distance education only in cases of inclement weather or when parents request it on an individual basis.

“As a District, we are entrusted to decide what is in the best interest of our communities on a day to day basis,” Superintendent Lisa Witte wrote in the letter, dated Oct. 25. “If that includes a temporary shift to remote learning in response to COVID-19, we must have the authority and responsibility to make those decisions.”

The district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — values in-person learning and does not plan to rely on distance education, the letter says, but the existing rule provides the flexibility the school board finds necessary to prioritize the health and safety of the community. The Monadnock board voted at its Oct. 19 meeting to send the letter to the state.

A week earlier, the Monadnock Regional Middle/High School transitioned to remote learning for three days after an uptick in COVID-19 cases combined with staffing challenges caused, in part, by quarantine and isolation requirements. Several other schools across the state have also made short-term switches to distance education due to an increase in coronavirus infections this academic year, including schools in Manchester and Raymond, according to media reports.

Monadnock’s letter also described a lack of collaboration between educators in the field and the N.H. Department of Education in drafting the new rule prior to its proposal. But in an interview with The Sentinel on Monday, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said it’s typical to seek input after the state proposes a new rule like this.

“This is the normal process for rule-making,” he said. “So there’s an opportunity for everyone to weigh in.”

The plan, which the state Department of Education proposed in September, is meant to be a sort of middle ground between the pre-COVID era that didn’t accommodate any kind of distance learning, and the universal implementation of distance learning last year Edelblut said.

“We introduced a rule that is more permissive than the circumstances that we had before COVID-19,” Edelblut said, “but not as permissive as the broadly expansive rule that we were adopting for operating during the middle of the pandemic and in the state of emergency.”

During the rule-making process, Gov. Chris Sununu declared a state of emergency and implemented an emergency rule similar to what the state board of education had been drafting, Edelblut said. The state of emergency lifted in May, and in July, the state board of education adopted the current rule, which allows districts to use in-person, hybrid or remote instruction.

“When we ended the state of emergency, what that basically did was it snapped us back to our pre-COVID rule, which did not accommodate any type of remote instruction during that period of time, and would have left us there,” Edelblut said of the current rule. “Because we were no longer in a state of emergency, we wanted to try and adopt a rule that would help facilitate good instruction for students and not move us back to where we were pre-COVID, which would have been highly restrictive.”

But now, the department believes requiring in-person instruction is best for students’ academic progress, mental health and to support parents who can’t stay home with students, Edleblut said.

After Wednesday’s hearing, the state board of education will take into account the public’s comments and make any changes warranted by those comments, Edelblut said. The board will act on the proposal at its December meeting, and the rule would then be passed to the Office of Legislative Services and Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules before it could be enacted in early 2022.

Members of the public who wish to submit written testimony to the seven-member state education board can email Amanda.Phelps@doe.nh.gov. The hearing is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. in Room 100 at the Walker Building, 21 South Fruit St., Concord.

Molly Bolan can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436 or mbolan@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @BolanMolly.