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N.H. Schools Turn To Updated Protocol As COVID Cases Emerge

School Bus
Dan Tuohy

Kids in New Hampshire are back in the classroom and positive COVID-19 cases are already showing up among students and staff.

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As COVID cases rise across the state, and a growing share of those cases occur in kids under 18, the positive cases don't come as a surprise.

But this year, schools' approach is different.

Following guidance from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, many schools are planning to notify close contacts of positive cases in schools and ask them to monitor for symptoms. But only unvaccinated household members of the infected person need to quarantine.

This is a major change from last school year when all close contacts of a positive case were placed under quarantine. As a result, classes and cohorts switched to remote learning for weeks at a time.

According to state guidance, a “close contact” in settings without masks is any person within six feet of the positive case for 15 minutes or more. In settings with masks, a close contact is any person within three feet of the positive case for 15 minutes or more. In many cases, this could include a whole classroom, sports team, band or chorus.

Many districts are already navigating this process.

On Friday, the Manchester School District suspended football events for 10 days, following positive COVID-19 tests among members of the team. In a press release, the school district said the decision was made out of an abundance of caution. The Manchester Health Department says the suspension was not part of a required public health action.

Jaime Hoebeke, chief strategy officer at the City of Manchester Health Department, says schools should be informing staff and families if their child was in the classroom or other spaces where the student who tested positive had been. Those students and staff can continue coming to school but should monitor for symptoms.

DHHS screening algorithm.PNG
New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services
A flowchart for schools to follow with a positive COVID-19 case.

Hoebeke says the notice of exposure is coming from schools, rather than the state health department so “it’s not a quarantine order. It's not a contact tracing process.”

The Nashua school district says it’s following similar procedures. When a positive case emerges, the school nurse, principal and assistant principal identify all people who had contact with the infected person in the last 48 hours.

As in other districts, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services will only proceed with contact tracing if a school experiences an outbreak.

One Nashua district staff member told NHPR that some staff were not being notified by their principals about positive cases. Stacy Hynes, a spokesperson for the district, said they were trying to follow new protocols.

“We’ve only been in school for a week,” she said. “We’re trying to do the best we can to assure people and follow all the safety protocols.”

The state’s COVID dashboard lists some cases in schools so far, but as with last year, the data does not reflect the extent of cases identified in districts.

The state lists four cases in the Nashua School District, but Hynes says they’ve had 13. Cases in Conway, Londonderry and Manchester were also underreported on the state dashboard.

The state did not respond to NHPR’s inquiries about these discrepancies.

COVID dashboard comparison.jpg
The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services and SAU 9
The state COVID dashboard (left) does not show positive cases that districts such as SAU 9 in Conway are reporting on their website (right).

Paula Jones, the principal of Henry Wilson Elementary School in Manchester, relies on the school district and Manchester Public Health Department to keep accurate track of cases there.

She says the school nurse has identified a few isolated cases so far. Jones suspects that ongoing COVID monitoring will continue to show that schools are not the superspreaders many had feared.

“We want the data,” she says. “Is it just two kids in the city of Manchester, or is it 2,000? Because then we can say to people: we’re not spreading this in school. It’s safe to be in school as long as we have mitigation in place.”

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.

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