Every week, new studies and evidence emerge to better inform us all of what the novel coronavirus is capable of and how to defend ourselves as a society. In the past two weeks, as school boards throughout the country have been making key decisions on how best — or even whether — to allow students to physically return to classrooms and hallways, we’ve seen a new focus on the news regarding the effects of the virus on children and teens, and whether classrooms full of kids would serve as petri dishes for the spread of the virus, as they do annually for colds and flu.
As it turns out, early assumptions about children’s relative immunity were somewhat exaggerated. Kids — even in-utero babies — can contract the virus, though they are less likely to than adults. A 7-year-old Georgia boy died last week from the disease, and a recent CDC report notes while children are less likely to require hospitalization for the virus, their hospitalization rate grew fourfold from March to July. And the CDC reports a third of children hospitalized for COVID-19 require intensive care treatment.
And while most of the attention has been on death rates — per capita, per case, by age, gender, etc. — we now know there are a host of other significant lasting effects from COVID-19. Even those children who survive often suffer lung scarring that will inhibit breathing for the rest of their lives. Others have experienced blood clots, strokes, heart damage, loss of memory, loss of taste or smell, kidney damage, fatigue, insomnia and other neurological symptoms long after being declared COVID-free. This is not just about fatality rates.
Yet there are compelling reasons for restarting school, and for including in-person instruction. As New Hampshire’s traditional fall starting dates draw nearer, the pressure has been on local boards and administrations to make hard decisions and plan how best to deal with what is a shifting public health landscape.
Over the past week, officials have unveiled their plans for resuming school in the ConVal, Fall Mountain, Monadnock, SAU 29, Hinsdale and Winchester districts. The Jaffrey-Rindge district unveiled what officials call a “framework” that will guide further planning.
All area schools’ plans, except for Marlborough’s, call for at least one day per week when students won’t be in school buildings, so those spaces can be cleaned. Several split students, either all or those in high school, into two groups to reduce contact; the groups will attend classes in person on alternating days (or, in the case of ConVal High School, alternating weeks). Some are delaying the start of the school year, some not. Some districts will require masks of everyone almost all the time. At least one — Fall Mountain — is requiring them only during bus rides. And all the plans include some remote learning — hopefully relying on training staff has had since last spring, when the remote learning forced upon schools with no warning was found lacking.
In short, these “hybrid” learning plans vary in detail. But all show an awareness that there remain many unknowns and that even within those plans, contingencies are necessary.
Importantly, the plans are flexible. The degree of in-person activity will vary depending on the overall threat in the community. They also include a response for when, inevitably, COVID cases arise. For SAU 29, for example, a single positive case of the virus will result in a two-day closure of that building and a shift to all remote learning for that time, plus contact tracing, sanitizing and notification of all staff and families. For multiple cases, the steps taken increase.
There are some sticking points. Several districts plan, or hoped, to have students whose families aren’t comfortable with in-person attendance bolster their learning through the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, a remote-instruction school based in Exeter that has had more experience with online techniques. But VLACS officials told SAU 29 that interest has been so high this summer they may not be able to take all who want to go there.
And not everyone will be comfortable with each district’s plan. Some teachers in several districts have already spoken out against the idea of in-person classes — at least anytime soon. But they also know of the need for many students to get more personal attention than was available last spring.
And no doubt some families will balk at the in-person aspect of the plans, while others may argue for more in-person classes, for educational or economic reasons.
The nature of this pandemic is such that even a few scant weeks from now, conditions could be very different than they now appear. That being the case, it seems school officials — with little more guidance from the state than to exhort them to balance health and educational outcomes — have done their best to create plans that, while not perfect, offer the best they can while retaining needed flexibility.