Robert Malay

N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 Superintendent Robert Malay is shown in a bus at Keene Middle School in September.

Students in N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 who have been learning remotely since the fall can continue to do so through the end of the academic year.

But depending on grade level and staffing numbers, children might not be able to switch from in-person to remote classes when all SAU 29 schools resume full on-site instruction May 3, Superintendent Robert Malay said.

“It’s not really a clear hard yes or no,” he said Monday. “It really depends on [staff] capacity.”

Overall, Malay said anyone who wants to change instructional models for their children should work with their principals and guidance counselors. As SAU 29 prepares to offer full in-person classes, though, he added that “there hasn’t been a mass wave” of parents requesting to shift from in-person to remote learning.

“So, there certainly are small, small pockets of folks who have inquired about it,” Malay said. “And all our building principals are providing guidance for families who are asking one way or another.”

At the start of the school year, the families of about 18 percent of SAU 29’s roughly 4,200 students chose for them to learn fully remotely, a figure that today is closer to 13 or 14 percent, Malay said. Families have been able to switch from remote learning to hybrid or in-person classes throughout the year.

Some districts in SAU 29 — which covers Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland — have already returned to five days a week of in-person classes.

Keene and other districts still operating under hybrid models received a waiver from the state last week allowing them to resume full in-person classes after next week’s spring break, instead of Monday. That’s when Gov. Chris Sununu’s order that all K-12 public schools statewide hold in-person classes five days a week took effect.

Sununu’s executive order, which he announced earlier this month, allows districts to continue to offer a remote option for students who aren’t yet comfortable returning to in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We felt it was very important to continue the remote [option] for those that have requested that from the get-go, and not cut that off entirely,” Malay said. “So, finding ways to continue that was one of our most significant challenges, and I think that we have suitably done that, or at least been able to do that to get to the end of the school year at all of our school levels.”

The main issue with adding more students who are fully remote, Malay said, is figuring out how to deploy staff members to offer full in-person classes, while still having adequate staffing to lead remote courses.

“Quite honestly, it’s not easy maintaining and running two different learning platforms when your staffing levels were already set by your budget in March of 2020,” he said. “So, the fact that they were able to do that up until this point, and find ways to make that happen to the end of the school year, is a credit to just how hard people are working to provide as much as they can for all of our students.”

The challenge is most prominent at Keene Middle School, he added, where, for example, two math teachers per grade level have taught remote classes while the school has offered hybrid learning. Starting May 3, when students begin coming in for in-person classes five days per week, that model will have to change.

“When we make this shift, we’re going to only have the ability for one teacher to be able to teach the 6th-, 7th- and 8th-grade levels” remotely, Malay said. “So that one teacher will be doing all three levels, as opposed to having six teachers teaching the math classes remotely when we were in the hybrid model.”

As a result, Keene Middle School likely can’t accommodate additional remote students for the time being. But SAU 29 leaders have committed to reviewing staff capacity continuously and requests from families who want to switch to remote learning, Malay said.

To help with staffing levels throughout SAU 29, Malay said districts are working with Keene State College to find upper-level education students to work in the schools as substitutes and in a variety of support staff roles. SAU 29 doesn’t have a target of how many Keene State students it wants to find for these positions, Malay said, but is instead focused on ensuring they will be available through the end of the school year.

“We don’t want to bring someone on for a week or two weeks, and then they go back home, wherever that might be,” Malay said. “We really want them to commit to the end of the school year. So that’s what we’re doing; we’re working this week and into next week over the vacation to nail down who will be available all the way through the end of the school year.”

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