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N.H. Education Commissioner: Mask Decisions Should Be In Parents' Hands

As the new school year fast approaches, questions are still lingering about safety, particularly as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus continues to spread. Students have also faced mental health challenges and learning loss after more than a year and a half of a pandemic.

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All Things Considered host Peter Biello spoke with Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut about safety, education, and the upcoming school year. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Peter Biello: This is All Things Considered on NHPR. I'm Peter Biello. As students and teachers prepare to head back to school, there are a lot of questions about how schools are adopting safety precautions against the highly contagious delta variant to how we can help students catch up after learning loss during the pandemic. Frank Edelblut is the Education Commissioner for the state of New Hampshire, and he's here with me now. Thank you very much for speaking with me.

Commissioner Frank Edelblut: Happy to be here, Peter.

Peter Biello: Commissioner, what should families expect this fall in terms of safety protocols from their district?

Commissioner Frank Edelblut: So, some of the same safety protocols that we had in place last year are going to be very familiar as school restarts this year. That means that we'll be looking at distancing, lots of student screening, one of the most important protocols over the summer and even into from the end of last year. We saw a lot of improvements in some of our air handling systems in the school systems. As we know, many of our educators at this point have had an opportunity to be vaccinated, so that's going to be an additional protocol.

So, a lot of the same things that we saw last year you're going to see coming into this year as well. And of course, masking is one of the areas that has probably received some of the most conversation around the state as districts are looking at what their particular masking protocols might be as they come into the year. And I think what we have to do is keep in mind that all of these different mitigating strategies need to be layered in one after another. The good news is that we demonstrated last year that we can safely operate school in New Hampshire for our students to be able to have in-person instruction.

Peter Biello: For students who are ultimately sent home for COVID safety reasons, are they at risk of falling behind their peers who are still in their normal learning environment? And if so, how are districts accounting for that potential to fall behind?

Commissioner Frank Edelblut: So, just like before the pandemic, when we had students who had to be out because of an illness, we will continue to work to ensure we have continuity of instruction for them. And that may mean that we are setting up and again, we've developed a lot of skills around us, setting up online learning opportunities for them to be able to stay with their peers. We can send home instructional materials that they can work on independently. They can access third party resources we have deployed in the state some technology over the last year and then into the spring and summer months, both [the] Canvas Learning Management System, that is a tool that schools can use to be able to help those students connect, as well as we've invested in the Discovery Learning Channel. So, Discovery Education, high-quality learning content so that those can be integrated into instruction. And those are also accessible by a student who might be at home.

Peter Biello: Do we have any data from student assessments on how far some students have fallen behind? And I ask because we've heard a lot of concerns about learning loss for students, especially for those who were in hybrid or remote school. Do we have any data about how far some students have fallen behind?

Commissioner Frank Edelblut: We do. We've collected a lot of data. We conducted an assessment in the spring, and we have gotten lots of data points on our students. That data is still in the process of being validated. The preliminary indications are that in English language arts, students are basically on par. So we didn't see gains, but we didn't see significant losses. And then where we saw losses is primarily in the math area, comparing our math in our English assessments.

But we really are trying to dig the details of that data. We did not have the same level of participation in the assessment that we normally do. We normally get over 95%. I think we're at about 80% participation. So, we really need to look closely at which cohorts did not participate in those assessments to understand what the underlying data is actually telling us about student performance.

Peter Biello: I want to ask you about mental health, because there has been a significant increase in reports of mental health challenges for young people during the pandemic. What, in your view, Frank Edelblut, is the role of schools in supporting these students?

Commissioner Frank Edelblut: So, we want to make sure that we support students across the board so that they can learn. Obviously, if a student comes to us and they're suffering from a mental health issue, it may make it difficult for them to even access their instructional materials. And so what we want to do is try and identify what the student supports are that are needed to help them move forward and then find a way and a pathway to be able to connect them.

One of the things that we did this summer, and we're continuing it into the fall, is a partnership with the Community Behavioral Health Association to provide training to educators to be able to identify some of the needs that students might be having and, where necessary, connect them with professionals that can provide the types of support they need so that they can be successful in their academics,

Peter Biello: Commissioner, school boards are facing major pushback over some of their COVID-related policies. Some parents are pushing back against mask requirements, even though studies show masks are very good at slowing the spread of COVID-19. What do you say to parents who oppose masks, something that has been proven to be very helpful in slowing the spread of this disease?

Commissioner Frank Edelblut: So, I always start with making sure that we all recognize that parents really need to be the primary driver in health care decisions for children. And so we need to invite them into that conversation and make sure that their voices are heard in that conversation. Beyond that, what you really need is you need to look at the totality of the learning environment that students are going to find them in. Again, we've got a lot of different mitigating protocols that can be put in place. You know, the number one thing that we can start with is student screening to make sure that we're not bringing, you know, sick students into our environment.

There are social distancing capabilities in a particular building. Some of our buildings enable us to maintain social distancing, others not. We've improved a lot of the air handling systems in our buildings which make for a healthy environment. And then you have masks as a protocol as well. What we have to be careful of is overemphasizing one particular mitigating factor and somehow assume that that is going to be the one thing that creates a successful environment.

Peter Biello: If a parent comes to you and says 'masks don't work, they're not effective.' What is your obligation to say 'actually the science says otherwise and you should really reconsider your opposition to this mask mandate.'

Commissioner Frank Edelblut: My obligation is to make sure that we create a safe learning environment for all students. And so I go back to let's look at the totality of the situation in that particular environment it's going to take place in. One district may be able to social distance, one not, one may have higher vaccination rates in your community versus another one may have certain air handling systems versus another, one may find that they've got a lot higher compliance in terms of student screening than another district. And then one may find that the community is able to attain compliance with masks, and another not. So you have to look at all of these factors and not allow yourselves to be reduced down to a debate over a single mitigating strategy.

Peter Biello: Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, thank you again for speaking with me.

Commissioner Frank Edelblut: Thanks, Peter.

Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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