Last spring, when the pandemic hit and much of society shut down abruptly, one of the biggest successes appeared to be how well schools quickly adapted to remote learning, allowing kids to continue school from home — at least those who had access to adequate Internet service.
But by the end of the spring, the narrative had changed to: Well, we did the best we could on the fly, but clearly remote learning isn’t optimal for many students. Further, it became apparent that remote schooling, combined with an almost complete lack of other group activities, was proving detrimental to children’s mental health and social development. By the time, then, that school districts had to begin the new school year in the fall, the key word had become “hybrid” — a combination of in-person and remote learning. The remote portion would help keep students and staff safer, while also allowing time to disinfect and clean facilities. But as often as seemed prudent, students would attend school in person.
It’s worked better than might have been expected. Infection rates traced to schools have been minimal. It’s believed children being somewhat less susceptible to the virus and less likely to spread it plays a major part in this, though undoubtedly it’s also because even during in-person learning, social distancing efforts have continued, along with the aforementioned disinfecting.
In any case, the success of in-person sessions in a limited format has prompted increased calls for more of it. Even President Biden has been recommending K-8 schools open in-person full-time — if the CDC’s safety guidelines of social distancing, masking, frequent hand-washing and contact tracing are implemented.
However, we were somewhat perplexed by Gov. Chris Sununu’s executive order last week, demanding New Hampshire public schools reopen fully at least two days a week.
It’s not that having two days per week of in-person attendance is necessarily a bad idea, but why the governor chose to demand it is a bit of a mystery. To begin with, most schools in the state have already returned to some in-person class days; many of them more than twice a week. And in cases where districts have backed away, returning to mostly or all remote schooling, it’s been because of increasing positive test rates.
In issuing the order, Sununu pointed to the state Division of Public Health Services’ January guidance document. The DPH “recommends schools minimize out-of-school learning to the extent possible and maximize in-person learning as resources and staffing allow.” Biden’s push to return to class is also a recommendation. Yet Sununu has chosen to mandate a return.
His order does allow for exceptions due to immediate health threats, but after 48 hours, they can remain remote only if the state Department of Education signs off on it. But recall last summer, when Sununu was under fire for not setting a statewide standard for schools’ return in the fall. His argument then was that circumstances may vary from district to district or region to region, and that local boards ought to make those decisions.
Now he wants to take the choice out of local boards’ hands, as if they’ve somehow flubbed their responsibility. That’s not the case, however; he even bases his order largely on how well schools have fared in avoiding or controlling any outbreaks.
The continuing danger of the virus hasn’t yet subsided to the point where mandating in-person attendance makes sense. Everyone’s goal is to return to normal, but literally forcing the issue has no upside, unless it’s to make some political point.
It’s possible that’s exactly what Sununu is doing. He’s been criticized by teachers unions for pushing to reopen schools while refusing to place a higher priority on getting school staffers vaccinated early. As nearly a year of life with COVID has made clear, children may be at a reduced (though not without) risk of catching the virus or becoming seriously ill from it, but the adults forced to interact in classrooms, lunchrooms and hallways are not.
If the governor wants schools to be safe enough for full-time in-person attendance, he has the ability to make them safer. And it isn’t by unilaterally demanding everyone act as if they are.