Gov. Chris Sununu is ordering all New Hampshire schools to reopen fully, five days a week, by April 19. School leaders were caught off guard by this decision last week, and some districts are scrambling to make sure they’re fully prepared to meet that deadline.
Robert Malay is the superintendent for N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, which covers Keene and six surrounding towns. NHPR’s Sarah Gibson spoke with him about how his SAU is handling the change.
Sarah Gibson: So what do you make of the governor’s, essentially [it’s a] mandate, for schools to fully reopen? Are you prepared to do so?
Robert Malay: I think it’s going to be incredibly challenging to overcome some of the logistical obstacles ahead of us. But I am very confident with the staff that we have that whatever the obstacle is, we’ll be able to overcome it. The additional time for us to make sure our staff were through that vaccination period would have been incredibly helpful on that end. But it would also have been incredibly helpful in terms of making the shift from a hybrid model to a five-day-a-week model in terms of instructional planning and preparing for students.
Sarah Gibson: Well, let’s talk about teacher vaccinations, which you just mentioned. Some school leaders are concerned that their teachers won’t be fully vaccinated by the governor’s deadline of April 19. What’s the situation with your SAU?
Robert Malay: That is going to be a reality in our schools as well. We began in earnest with our staff receiving their vaccinations on March 13. And it has taken a couple of weeks for us to get everyone who wanted to become vaccinated through that process of receiving their first dose. We know that second doses for many of our staff members won’t be until April 17. And then it’s a two-week window after that, before you have reached what is considered full vaccination, if you will. I think the ability to staff both an in-person model as well as a remote model is an obstacle that we’re working to overcome.
Sarah Gibson: Well, I’m curious about that specifically. Are you planning to continue offering a fully remote option to all families who opt for that for the rest of the semester?
Robert Malay: So what we’re looking at is for the folks who have opted into the remote-only program from the onset of the school year to be able to continue to the end of the school year and how we’re going to be able to pull that off. We know that we’re going to need additional staff to make that reality happen. And so those are some of the logistical things that we’re working through on how we’re going to get the additional staff. Where are they going to magically appear from? And we’re working with all of our building leaders to see what we can and what we cannot do. And so it’s a really complicated conversation to be able to provide for our families who began the school year with the intent of going through the school year in a remote-only program while we were in the middle of the pandemic, while we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.
Sarah Gibson: So I do have a question about the distancing requirement — 3 feet. And there’s been a lot of debate about this. But ... Gov. Sununu’s office shared an FAQ on his reopening order in response to concerns that some schools cannot maintain 3 feet in the classrooms if fully open. The governor’s office said, “The benefit of full time in-person education to the mental health and the overall health of the child far outweighs the risk of being within three feet of space during certain times of the day.” So how do you make sense of this? Is this a departure from 3-foot distancing guidelines?
Robert Malay: Well, it sounds like it is a little bit of a departure from that guideline. And, you know, it’s probably fair to say until somebody becomes sick and then has to miss an extended period of time from school, and then they’re back isolated from their peers as well. So folks are making a lot of decisions with the information they have on hand. And I think everyone’s trying to do the best that they can. And that’s the same for all of my colleagues around the state. They’re doing the best they can with the information that they have to make decisions that are in the best interest of students.
And 3 feet of distancing has ample amounts of study that that is suitable for a school setting. When everybody is facing the same direction, they’re wearing masks and what have you with regard to safety procedures. And so if we do away with that, then are we saying that we don’t need masks and we don’t need distancing and everything should be open? I don’t think we’re ready for that yet, and I don’t think there’s evidence that we are ready for that yet.