School learning

K-12 public schools must hold in-person classes five days a week starting April 19, Gov. Chris Sununu announced Thursday.

During a news conference, Sununu said that 60 percent of New Hampshire schools are already offering full-time in-person classes. Now, the remaining 40 percent will have just over two weeks to prepare to return to a normal schedule.

“We have said all along, and it has been proven, that schools can reopen safely, and that remains as true today as ever,” Sununu said during the news conference. “In a few short weeks, all teachers and school staff who want the vaccine will have received their second dose.”

He also said that getting kids back into school isn’t just an educational concern, but also a matter of mental health and socialization. Remote learning was a good substitute in the early days of the pandemic, he said, but it doesn’t compare to physically being in a classroom.

Districts will still be able to offer a remote option to students who aren’t yet comfortable returning, Sununu added.

Monadnock Regional School District Superintendent Lisa Witte said Thursday evening she had no idea the governor’s announcement was coming. Though she declined to discuss the matter in detail with The Sentinel — having not yet seen the full written copy of the order — she said it was “frustrating” to learn about it without any notice.

“It is frustrating to find out about something so impactful to our schools via press conference,” she said in an email, “but unfortunately this has become the norm.”

Meanwhile, state Republicans are lauding the governor’s decision. The N.H. Republican State Committee posted on Facebook shortly after the announcement: “Governor Chris Sununu’s steady leadership has ensured our students are returning to the classroom with a safe & quality education throughout the Granite State!”

In February, Sununu announced that all public schools would need to offer in-person classes at least two days a week by March 8.

That date was just shy of a year after he ordered schools to go remote, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, though most have since either returned full-time to in-person instruction or have been working under a hybrid model.

In the Monadnock Region, most schools are using some form of hybrid approach, with in-person learning ranging from two to four days each week.

Some local schools have already returned to full-time in-person schedules, while some others still using hybrid models were in the process of transitioning back to in-person learning prior to Thursday’s announcement.

Superintendent Robert Malay said many of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29’s schools have already returned to four days of in-person classes, and the SAU — which includes Keene and six nearby towns — has been working on plans to get all schools back to five days per week.

However, he took issue with the governor’s statement that all teachers and school staff who wish to be vaccinated would be by April 19. While many people will have gotten their second dose by then, he said, there’s a 14-day window between when someone receives their final dose and when they’re considered fully inoculated.

“I do know for certain that many staff members received dose one this past week,” Malay said. “They will not be fully vaccinated until April 30 or May 1.”

Teachers became broadly eligible for vaccinations on March 12.

Malay also said the change will present teachers with a challenge, as they will have to prepare for a full return on top of their current workload. Pushing the return date back a week to align it with most districts’ spring breaks would have given schools and teachers “the gift of time,” he added.

Malay said he also has concerns about maintaining the three feet of social distancing required in schools with all students on campus at the same time. It’s not so much an issue within classrooms, he said, as with transportation, and in cafeterias and other places where students congregate.

Witte and Malay weren’t the only ones with concerns about the manner in which Thursday’s news was broken. In a press release, American Federation of Teachers-N.H. President Doug Ley criticized Sununu’s decision as being “done on a whim and based upon incomplete and inaccurate information.”

Ley, who is also a Democratic state representative from Jaffrey and associate professor at Franklin Pierce University, echoed Malay’s concerns about social distancing — specifically on buses and in cafeterias — and the extent to which teachers will be fully vaccinated by April 19. And like Witte, Ley decried the lack of communication with state education leaders.

“As with the Governor’s prior announcements, school districts were already making their plans, knowing the particulars of their local district, before the governor issued his heavy-handed state mandate,” Ley said in the release. “Instead of working with local districts, the Governor has once again tried to swoop in for credit while leaving school districts to do the real work.”

Sentinel staff writer Jack Rooney contributed reporting to this article.

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter

@MiaSummerson