Gov. Chris Sununu on Tuesday unveiled the state’s guidelines for reopening public schools in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, while emphasizing that local districts will make their own decisions on how to return to class.
The state won’t require students and staff to wear masks in the classroom, for instance, but face coverings are highly encouraged when social distancing can’t be maintained, in places like hallways and on school buses. However, the state will mandate that all school visitors, including parents dropping off children, wear masks while on school property.
Overall, the 54-page document does not present a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather offers school districts throughout the state the flexibility to craft their own reopening plans, Sununu said.
“By providing the guidelines, but allowing the teachers and administrators to manage, what we’ve really tried to do is make sure we didn’t create something so rigid it was doomed to fail, so rigid it would be brittle,” he said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
Sununu added that he feels confident all students and staff can return to school safely in September, but that districts should still plan for a hybrid model that includes both in-person and remote instruction, based on local needs.
This past school year, in March, Sununu ordered schools to close and transition to remote learning due to concern over COVID-19. He later extended that order through the end of the academic year.
The state guidance calls for school districts to develop hybrid instruction plans for students and staff who have underlying health concerns and can’t return to school, or if a spike in coronavirus cases forces schools to reduce in-person class sizes or transition fully to remote learning again.
“We just don’t know what this is going to look like, but we wanted to create a system that allowed that flexibility ... so the districts and the principals and the teachers could design the model that would work best for their students,” Sununu said.
In order to navigate all of these potential scenarios, the state also advises school districts to develop a comprehensive communication plan to share the most up-to-date information with students, families and staff members.
“When you have that transparency, and you have that back-and-forth communication between parents, teachers and students and folks that are managing those facilities, again, I really do believe it’s a pillar of success not just for getting kids back in September, but maintaining school operations for the long term,” Sununu said.
While Sununu touted the guidance’s flexibility, the plan drew criticism from some Democrats in the Legislature.
“Today Governor Sununu failed the students and hard-working staff at New Hampshire schools,” Rep. Mel Myler, D-Hopkinton, who chairs the House Education Committee, said in a written statement. “Let me be clear — flexibility is not a plan. New Hampshire has always prided itself on local control at the school level but during a pandemic, as the governor demonstrated when he closed schools in March, the state must lead.”
Specifically, Myler criticized Sununu for not mandating masks for everyone in schools.
In response to a question about this criticism during Tuesday’s news conference, Sununu said New Hampshire’s guidelines are based on the recommendations of a statewide task force that received input from nearly 56,000 parents and school officials.
“If folks are out there saying that we’re failing schools because we don’t mandate masks, I would say that those individuals are failing to listen to the stakeholders, to the parents, to the teachers, to the administrators,” he said. “They were the ones that were all part of the stakeholder process that effectively wrote this document.”
The state also recommends that districts develop a robust daily screening process for staff, students and visitors, and arrange classrooms to minimize close contact between students, ideally keeping desks at least 3 feet apart.
The full school reopening guidance can be read at covidguidance.nh.gov.
Local planning continues
Throughout the Monadnock Region, districts are in the process of seeking feedback from their communities and crafting plans for a potential mix of in-person and remote classes in the fall.
In the Monadnock Regional School District, which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy, district leaders are seeking input on reopening from parents, guardians and students via an online survey, which had garnered 620 responses as of Monday.
Monadnock is planning for three scenarios next year: returning to in-person instruction, remaining with remote learning or a hybrid of the two, Superintendent Lisa Witte wrote Monday in a letter on the district website.
Monadnock’s School Reopening Planning Team intends to draft an initial reopening plan by July 23 and publicly share a final plan a week after that, Witte wrote. The Monadnock Regional School Board will review the reopening plan at its Aug. 4 meeting.
N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, which consists of Keene and six nearby towns, released a draft reopening framework last week. The 19-page document, posted on the SAU 29 website, lays out possible strategies for schools to address issues ranging from social distancing and personal protective equipment requirements to extracurricular activities and transportation to and from school.
SAU 29 leaders sought feedback on the plan through a survey, which closed Monday morning, and are taking this week to analyze the feedback and prepare a final framework next week.
“There was a lot of valuable input that was shared, and there are a lot of factors that will need to be considered as they will vary from building to building,” SAU 29 Superintendent Robert Malay wrote Monday in a message on the unit’s website. “... Some of the input will be used to finalize the framework and some will be used as key decisions are made on what the opening will look like specifically.”
Schools in the Keene, Chesterfield, Harrisville, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland districts will use the final SAU 29 framework to create school-specific reopening plans. Those plans will continue to evolve throughout the summer, subject to the latest public health information and government guidance, according to Malay.
Meanwhile, the ConVal Regional School District is also planning for a mix of in-person and online classes next school year, according to a letter posted last week on the school board website.
The plan for the district, which covers Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough, Sharon and Temple, is still in development, and will be updated based on the latest epidemiological data available, according to the letter.
The Fall Mountain Regional School District’s COVID-19 Response Team, made up of administrators, department directors and school nurses, is working on a plan for that district, which covers Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Langdon and Walpole.
The district is conducting a parent survey on reopening and planning for a hybrid model of in-school and online instruction, Superintendent Lori Landry wrote last week in a letter to Fall Mountain families.
The Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District has formed an ad hoc committee of administrators, staff, parents and other community members to develop a reopening plan, which the group hopes to finalize by the end of the month. The district will send a reopening survey to staff and parents, guardians and students, on Thursday, Superintendent Reuben Duncan wrote on the district’s website Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Hinsdale School District has already completed a parent survey, and a reopening steering committee will submit recommendations to the school board at its meeting next Wednesday, Superintendent Wayne Woolridge said.
The district plans to share a reopening plan with families in early August, he added.