School reopen

A state task force has finalized its recommended guidelines for schools to reopen in the fall, but N.H. Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut emphasized that the process is just beginning.

“It’s important for us to acknowledge that these recommendations are a living document,” Edelblut said Monday during a meeting of the state’s School Transition Reopening and Redesign Taskforce. “And as new information evolves, we will continue to monitor the circumstances in the state of New Hampshire, we will work closely with HHS, we will monitor information from CDC, as well as any other health-care professionals, and may update this guidance throughout the process.”

At Monday’s task-force meeting, which was held virtually, members of the 12-person group finished discussing their recommendations for state leaders, which fall into 10 categories. The group first addressed the issue of student transportation and ultimately concluded that if districts institute social distancing and/or personal protective equipment requirements for students, they may need to add a staff member on school buses to implement those measures.

“Obviously we can’t expect the bus driver to be monitoring social distancing on a bus, and policing that,” said task-force member Keith Noyes, a teacher at Belmont Middle School. “But if that doesn’t happen, if the kids aren’t wearing masks and whatnot on the bus, then really it would be all for naught. You get to the school and all those precautions will have already been broken.”

Overall, the recommendations address social-distancing measures, school sanitation procedures and the development of a hybrid model for schools to operate in-person and remotely, among other topics.

The group’s recommendations, which will be presented to Gov. Chris Sununu on Tuesday, will inform the state’s official school reopening guidelines, which the governor’s office is set to release later this summer. Individual school districts throughout the state can then use those recommendations to craft their own policies for returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Knowing that the districts are working on it, this will give them some framework and make sure that they’ve addressed all of the appropriate areas as we move toward September,” Edelblut said.

Leaders of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 say they plan to share a draft reopening plan and seek public feedback next week. The final plan for schools in the SAU is scheduled to be presented the week of July 20.

Sununu initially ordered schools to close March 16 and transition to remote learning due to concern over COVID-19. He later extended that order through the end of the school year.

Robert Malay, superintendent of SAU 29, which consists of Keene and six nearby towns, wrote in a message to families and staff Monday that local schools continue to formulate their own plans for returning in the fall. Like Edelblut, he reiterated that whatever plans emerge from this process need to be flexible.

“I want to caution everyone here that the framework will not be a final decision, but more of a plan on what we will do in the various scenarios that we could be faced with in late August,” Malay wrote in the message, which was posted on the SAU 29 website. “As we near the end of July and beginning of August, we will use the most current information and guidance from the state and health officials to assist us with determining how we will begin the new school year.”

State task-force members on Monday also agreed that educators will need to prioritize students’ social and emotional health before schools focus on grades.

“We need to have students readjust to grouping and social groups and rules and routines and procedures,” said Catherine Plourde, who is the director of student services for the Oyster River School District in Durham. “And we want to make sure that kids come in and are comfortable before we start assessing for instruction.”

The task force also discussed plans for how to provide meals for students if schools must return to remote learning and technology requirements for schools to be able to provide in-person, remote or hybrid classes in the fall.

These recommendations joined other topics the task force considered at its meeting last week, including policies for social distancing and screening students, staff and visitors for COVID-19 symptoms. The group also decided on guidelines for how schools will determine what sort of protective equipment to require and evaluate cleaning practices.

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