The Monadnock Regional School District intends to resume full in-person instruction when students return from spring break May 3 — two weeks later than when Gov. Chris Sununu ordered schools statewide to reopen.
The board voted at its meeting Tuesday night to send a letter to N.H. Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut declaring the district’s intent to postpone fully reopening because most staff members will not be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by April 19. Additionally, the letter states, many spaces in Monadnock district schools will not be able to accommodate the 3 feet of distance between students that the state health department currently recommends.
“As a Board, we cannot in good conscience place our partially vaccinated, non-fully protected employees in situations where we know less than 3’ of social distancing is likely,” the letter reads. “Our planned return beginning on May 3 will ensure that our employees are protected if they are in a situation where less than 3’ of social distancing occurs.”
Most staff members in the Monadnock district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — began receiving COVID-19 vaccines March 19, Superintendent Lisa Witte said during the meeting, which was held via Zoom. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people are considered fully vaccinated 14 days after their second dose of a two-shot COVID-19 vaccine.
“That means that they won’t have full protection from the vaccine until no earlier than the 23rd of April, which is the end of the week that the Governor had asked for folks to be back,” Witte said. “And the following week is vacation, so we’ll have a large number of folks who will achieve the full benefits of the vaccine either right before vacation, or over vacation itself.”
Throughout the school year, students in the Monadnock district have attended school in person two days per week and done remote learning the rest of the week. Families can also choose for their children to learn fully remotely, an option that will remain for the rest of the academic year.
Sununu announced last Thursday that he was ordering all K-12 public schools statewide to hold in-person classes five days a week beginning April 19. That executive order allows for districts to request a waiver to push back that date due to safety concerns, Witte said Tuesday. New Hampshire districts including Manchester and Exeter have submitted waiver requests, according to the N.H. Union Leader and the Portsmouth Herald.
Monadnock board Chairman Scott Peters of Troy said he got the sense “multiple districts” are taking advantage of guidance from the New Hampshire School Boards Association on how districts could request a waiver. The Monadnock board voted to make the language in the district’s letter even stronger than a request, though, instead declaring its intention to postpone full reopening.
Board member Michelle Connor of Richmond asked Witte if Monadnock could resume full in-person classes if the state pushed back against the district’s plan to return May 3.
“Operationally, we can do it,” Witte said in response. “I’m just worried about the safety.”
Witte added that she is not aware of any specific penalties the district could face for not following Sununu’s order. That topic came up during a meeting Witte and other superintendents had with Edelblut last Friday, she said. “And the response we got back was, ‘You’d be out of compliance.’ That’s it.”
The board ultimately decided to set May 3 as the district’s full reopening date by a weighted vote of 10.544-1.122. Board member Brian Bohannon of Swanzey was the lone vote against the proposal, while Nicholas Mosher of Roxbury abstained. Elizabeth Tatro of Swanzey was absent from the meeting.
Before deciding on the district’s reopening date, the board also approved a series of cuts to the 2021-22 budget to meet the $32.5 million budget voters approved last month, an $855,000 reduction to the district’s original budget proposal. These reductions include the elimination of seven staff positions, one fewer than the district initially looked to cut, due in part to $115,000 in savings on staff health insurance costs, caused by a rate increase lower than the budget planned for, Witte said.
She added that not all of these moves will result in job losses. For example, a wellness teacher at Monadnock Regional Middle/High School in Swanzey Center whose position is being eliminated will move to a new district-wide role leading a program focused on student social and emotional wellness after the pandemic, which will be funded for two years by federal dollars the district received as part of a coronavirus relief package.
Troy Elementary School will eliminate its preschool program as part of the cuts, largely due to low enrollment in the program, Witte said, adding that families there who still want preschool can send their children to Emerson Elementary School in Fitzwilliam. Similarly, the high school will not offer French next year because of these budget reductions.
“Our French program has had dwindling enrollment over the past several years, and so that position will be reduced,” Witte said.
Mosher said he’s heard from a number of parents throughout the district who expressed “a tremendous amount of disappointment” that the French program was being cut. Witte added that all students can still choose from a variety of foreign language courses offered through Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, an Exeter-based nonprofit online school, though Spanish will be the only language offered in-person at MRMHS next year.
“This is painful,” Peters said of the budget cuts before the board approved them. “I think we’re a little bit subdued because we do not like ever needing to take away services from students. It’s excellent when we can find an alternative, something like preschool in Troy can attend Fitzwilliam is an excellent alternative to make it work. But it sorrows us to have to go through this motion.”
Monadnock’s budget committee cut 2.6 percent from the district’s original proposal at the group’s meeting in January. At that meeting, and the district’s annual deliberative session, several budget committee members argued the cut would help the district avoid running a large surplus, as it has for the past four years. Witte has maintained from the beginning that the reduction would result in staff and programming cuts.