As for many things New Hampshire, the mantra of local control in public education has long been sacrosanct. It accounts for the unusually heavy reliance this state places on local property taxes. It’s also been used over the years to justify the state’s abdication of its constitutional responsibility to pay a realistic baseline amount to assure an adequate education throughout the state. It’s rather shocking, then, when those who beat the local-control drum loudest find it convenient to ignore it to achieve other ends.
A case in point is the recent proposal before the state Board of Education to deny local school districts the flexibility to deal with COVID outbreaks in their schools in the manner they feel best suits the education and health needs of students and staff. The proposed rule, backed by Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, would permit districts to allow remote learning only when requested by a parent on an individual basis, or due to snow or other inclement weather. By not allowing any other exceptions, it would force school districts with no choice but to close their facilities and make up the lost days later if faced with a serious COVID outbreak.
The impetus for the rule is mystifying. There’s no question that schools want to provide in-person learning whenever possible, a lesson driven home during the state-of-emergency order that forced schools into remote learning beginning the last half of the 2019-20 school year. And since then, school districts have developed their own protocols to keep students learning in school while providing flexibility to address outbreaks. Under current Department of Education policy, even if a school district feels it has no choice but to go remote, it cannot do so beyond 10 days without state approval. If the proposed rule is adopted, however, a school board will lose even that option if a severe enough outbreak of infections means its schools cannot be operated safely or effectively.
Although the proposal is not expected to make its way through the rulemaking process and become effective before December at the earliest, Edelblut has further muddied the waters by acting as if the rule is already in force. In September, according to a N.H. Bulletin report, he sent an email to all the state’s superintendents stating that schools “must” offer full in-person instruction to all families who want in-person instruction, even though he then rather confusingly indicated that advice was only voluntary. He also reportedly intervened last month when Manchester officials closed two elementary schools due to COVID-19 clusters, saying he was reiterating the proposed rule — even though it’s not yet in effect.
Creating such confusion during the delta variant surge in COVID cases was especially irresponsible of Edelblut. Schools obviously must be concerned about the health of their students should there be an outbreak among them. But an outbreak among teachers, bus drivers and other personnel could also cause staffing shortages that seriously limit in-person classes and operations. Without a remote option to pivot to for even a brief period, schools may find themselves forced to close temporarily.
The proposed rule — call it the Edelblut Mandate — is a dangerous intrusion on local districts’ ability to address the health and safety needs of their schools. Local school officials are adamant they want to continue in-person learning, but they deserve to have the flexibility to deal with outbreaks individually and as they see best for local needs.
By pushing the proposed rule, Edelblut would enable every school in the state to treat snow days with more flexibility than COVID outbreaks or, indeed, any other emergency situation. So much for local control.