Keene High School

Keene High School

Roughly one-fifth of students whose families have answered a survey by N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 plan to begin the new academic year fully remotely, according to Superintendent Robert Malay.

Thus far, approximately 21 percent of respondents have told school officials they want their children to learn from home to start the new year, Malay wrote Monday in a message on the SAU 29 website. SAU 29 covers Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland.

In the Monadnock Regional School District — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — about 15 percent of students intend to begin the school year fully remotely, Jeremy Rathbun, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, said Tuesday.

Most local school districts, including Monadnock and five of the seven SAU 29 districts, plan to open the year with a mix of in-person and online instruction. (That excludes Chesterfield, which will begin the year fully remotely, and Marlborough, which will start fully in-person). But all area public schools are giving families the option to start the new academic year fully remotely if they are not comfortable sending their children to any in-person classes.

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. After Gov. Chris Sununu released the state’s reopening guidance on July 14, largely leaving final decisions up to individual school districts, public schools throughout the Monadnock Region have worked toward finalizing their reopening plans.

And as school boards across the area have approved reopening plans over the past two weeks, district leaders have begun surveying families on their intentions for the coming year while continuing to develop plans to offer a fully remote option.

“This information is absolutely critical as we are working through the design and implementation to make these options a reality,” Malay wrote in his message on Monday. “We will be ready.”

SAU 29 leaders need to know how many students intend to take only remote classes in order to determine how many staff members the districts will need to teach these classes.

SAU 29 initially planned to direct students who opted for full remote instruction to the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, an Exeter-based nonprofit online school. But Malay announced during a meeting of all seven SAU 29 school boards on Aug. 6 that VLACS would not necessarily be able to provide an online education to all who want it, so SAU 29 would instead offer a fully remote curriculum using its own staff members.

Demand for VLACS online classes has exploded since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The N.H. Union Leader reported that enrollment at the school has quadrupled compared to last year. As of Tuesday afternoon, 100 of the school’s 342 classes were closed to new enrollments, while another 11 courses had wait lists, according to the VLACS learning catalog.

The Monadnock district is still directing high school students to VLACS for full remote instruction, Rathbun said Tuesday, noting that “a lot of the [VLACS] high school courses are still open,” and that the district will help students who encounter any issues enrolling.

“If VLACS isn’t going to work, if they couldn’t get into a VLACS class, then we will work with individual students to come up with an alternative to VLACS,” Rathbun said.

The Fall Mountain Regional School District — which covers Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Langdon and Walpole — is also working with students in fifth through 12th grades to enroll in VLACS, if they want to remain fully remote to begin the year, according to a letter from Superintendent Lori Landry posted on the district’s website. For younger students, though, Fall Mountain plans to offer a remote option using its own teachers, Landry wrote.

Similarly, Monadnock’s reopening plan, which the school board approved two weeks ago, calls for elementary and middle school students who choose a fully remote option to receive online instruction through a district-provided platform. All Monadnock students, regardless of whether they return to school under the district’s hybrid model or fully remotely, will have access to district staff members on Fridays, when school buildings will be closed and all students will learn remotely.

“We’ll also be reaching out to these kids [who choose the fully remote option], making sure that they’re still included in their class meetings and can still participate fully in the culture of the school,” Rathbun said.

Meanwhile, several other districts are planning to offer fully remote courses taught by their own staff members, similar to the SAU 29 plan. That includes the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District, where just over 20 percent of families are opting for fully remote instruction, according to Superintendent Reuben Duncan. The ConVal Regional School District — which covers Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough, Sharon and Temple — also will offer a fully remote option using its own staff members, according to that district’s reopening plan, which the school board approved two weeks ago.

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