Even though summer just began, education leaders locally and statewide are already busy planning for how to reopen schools in the fall.
“The overall feeling is, ‘Let’s get back to school, let’s find a way to make this work,” N.H. Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said Tuesday during a meeting of the state’s School Transition Reopening and Redesign Taskforce.
Edelblut was referencing a statewide survey of parents and school officials, which he said revealed some tension between a strong desire to return to school in the fall, and lingering concerns about how to do so safely.
Several members of the 12-person task force, for example, noted that imposing social-distancing guidelines on students, especially younger children, will be difficult.
“We have to consider the data that said how realistic is it that students are actually going to follow social-distancing guidelines, are they going to congregate in groups,” said task force member Phil Nazzaro, who also serves on the state board of education. “So we could write all the recommendations in the world, but kids are going to do what kids are going to do, and they’re going to congregate.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, which was held virtually and came one week before the task force is scheduled to present its final recommendations to Sununu, Edelblut gave an overview of the results of the statewide survey on school reopening, and presented the group’s draft guidelines.
Nearly 56,000 parents and school officials took the survey, which was open from late May through early June. Sununu initially ordered schools to close March 16 and transition to remote learning due to concern over COVID-19, later extending that order through the end of this school year.
Among other topics, the reopening survey asked about preferred safety measures for schools. The most popular responses, according to data shared at the meeting, were temperature checks, social distancing, reduced class sizes and making personal protective equipment, like masks, available to students and staff.
Determining public health protocols — such as policies for social distancing and screening students, staff and visitors for COVID-19 symptoms — was one of 10 proposed recommendations the task force discussed Tuesday. Other draft guidelines include developing a hybrid model for schools to be able to operate in-person and remotely, supporting student, family and educator wellness and preparing school buildings by determining what sort of PPE will be required and evaluating school cleaning practices.
After the guidelines are finalized, school districts throughout the state can use them to make their own individual decisions for how to reopen safely.
Robert Malay, superintendent of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, which includes Keene and six nearby towns, sits on the task force’s operations work group, one of six subgroups that helped the task force draft its recommendations. Malay said Tuesday that the task force has accomplished its goal of putting together guidelines for the governor to consider.
“And I think what a lot of districts are looking for is guidance coming from our state leader, to say, ‘This is what we are going to do,’ ” he said.
And while the state task force finalizes its recommendations for Sununu, SAU 29 districts are also beginning to develop their own reopening plans, Malay added. A survey of SAU 29 families and staff garnered nearly 2,700 responses before closing Tuesday morning. School leaders will analyze the results of the survey over the coming week before releasing a draft reopening plan for public feedback the week of July 6.
“So they’ll get another bite at the apple, so to speak,” Malay said. “And based on the feedback we get from the draft framework, we will put together a final plan of what it will look like with different possibilities for the return of the new school year.”
That final plan for SAU 29 schools is scheduled to be presented the week of July 20. In the meantime, Malay said everyone involved in the decision-making process needs to be patient.
“I think everybody wants to know what the plan is going to look like, but we’ve got to give the process its time to run its course so that we aren’t overlooking anything and we’re not rushing through,” he said. “So we want to stick to our timeline and make sure we’re being mindful of all the things that we need to be considering with whatever the opening of the school year’s going to look like.”