Keene High School

Cecily Weisburgh / Sentinel Staff

Keene High School

Students, families and staff at schools in N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 will know in the next two weeks how they will return to class in the fall.

SAU 29 on Monday released a final version of its school reopening framework, which plans for three possibilities for the coming academic year: in-person instruction, remote learning or a hybrid of the two. The guidelines cover possibilities ranging from alternating groups of students receiving in-person instruction in a hybrid model to limiting restrooms to one student at a time and making hallways one-way, where possible.

Schools in the Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland districts now will use this 23-page document to develop their own specific reopening plans, which will be finalized the week of Aug. 3, according to SAU 29 Superintendent Robert Malay.

“I need to stress once again, this is not the decision point people may be looking for at this time, but the roadmap that will help guide us on what those specific procedures/protocols will look like,” Malay wrote Monday in a message on the SAU 29 website.

Malay added that universal policies, which will apply to all SAU 29 schools, will be released later this week. Schools will finalize their own specific reopening plans and present them to the appropriate school board during the week of Aug. 3. Those plans, Malay stressed, will be based on the most up-to-date epidemiological data, guidance from health care professionals and directives from the state government.

Other school districts throughout the Monadnock Region are in various stages of their own reopening plans, which also will be finalized in the coming weeks. Public schools statewide transitioned to remote learning in mid-March due to concern over the COVID-19 pandemic, and remained that way through the end of the school year.

SAU 29’s final framework comes almost a week after Gov. Chris Sununu unveiled New Hampshire’s school reopening guidance, which largely leaves final decisions, like whether or not students and teachers will be required to wear masks in class, up to local school districts.

The state’s guidelines were designed to be flexible, Sununu said, but the plan has drawn some criticism — specifically from Democrats in state government and the New Hampshire chapter of the National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union — for being too vague.

“We all have opinions on what the guidance did and what the guidance did not provide for individual schools and districts,” Malay wrote Monday. “Our task now is to take our framework, the guidance from the State of New Hampshire, and the most current guidance from health officials [from the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC] to create our specific procedures and protocols for the opening of the new school year.”

Sununu also announced last week that public school staffs would get three extra days at the beginning of the school year to prepare for their own COVID-19 protocols. That means SAU 29 schools will start on Monday Aug. 31, instead of Wednesday Aug. 26, Malay said.

In the meantime, SAU 29 school leaders will continue the “complex conversations” necessary to synthesize guidance from a wide variety of sources and produce building-specific reopening plans, according to Malay.

“I can assure you of two things along this line, first and foremost, all specific procedures and protocols will be centered on student and staff safety and well-being, [and], two, there likely is nobody that wants to get this step completed more than the people that are working on it,” Malay wrote.

For now, the SAU 29 guidelines call for limiting large gatherings and close contact in school buildings with measures like staggering dismissal times for different groups of students and maximizing the space between desks, all of which will be required to face the same direction in classrooms. Specific decisions on social distancing and personal protective equipment will be based on “guidance from health officials,” according to the framework document. Schools also may consider using outdoor space.

The SAU 29 framework is based on the work of three focus groups, which began meeting in early June and concentrated on academics and instruction, student and staff services, and operations and logistics, respectively. These focus groups, made up of staff members from SAU 29 districts, designed a survey that garnered 2,681 responses over the course of one week in mid-June.

Those responses, along with a sample of school reopening plans from around New Hampshire and other states, serve as the basis for a draft reopening plan, which was released July 6. SAU 29 then collected feedback on that framework via an online survey, and incorporated those responses, and the state’s guidance, into the final plan released Monday.

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.