Community Conversations: COVID And The Classroom
It's back to school season in New Hampshire. This year, many kids are back in the classroom. But with the Delta variant of the coronavirus on the rise, schools across the state are taking steps to keep kids safe. But what are those steps and how will this impact students' mental health and how well they can learn?
We held a live community conversation about those questions and more. We heard from teachers, students and parents across the state about what’s happening in their school district and how it’s impacting households.
We brought together pediatric infectious disease specialist and pediatric hospitalist Dr. Sharon Vuppula and NHPR's education reporter Sarah Gibson for a special event to answer your questions and respond to your comments, live on the air.
What follows is a transcript of what we learned. This conversation does cover mental health, suicide and young people, so please take care while listening or reading.
Listener Voice: The idea that there is all this stuff that we don't know and we can't control is kind of scary.
Listener Voice: It's hard to watch your kid struggle like that and know that it's just something they have to get through and that you can be there to support them and help them, but they have to do it on their own.
Listener Voice: I feel like most kids in my grade wouldn't wear masks if they were optional, a lot of people I know would just be like 'no it's not a big deal.' I think only a couple other kids in my grade would wear masks and they would probably even get made fun of
Listener Voice: Probably within like the first month, she'll be a lot more used to it and she'll feel the way that she used to before in school, hopefully.
Peter Biello: Welcome to a Community Conversation: COVID and the Classroom. I'm Peter Biello, live in Concord. Good evening. Thank you so much for tuning in. With New Hampshire students heading back to school in the coming weeks, you may have questions or concerns. So, for the next hour, we'll take your questions and hear your stories. Tell us what's happening in your district. Parents, how do you feel about sending your kids back to school? And students, teachers, school administrators, school nurses, how do you feel? Call us now. Our number is (603) 513-7700. That's (603) 513-7700. You can also send us an email and that address is email@example.com. And this evening, we have NHPR education reporter Sarah Gibson, here in the studio. Hey, Sarah.
NHPR Education Reporter Sarah Gibson: Hi, Peter.
Peter Biello: And we also have pediatric infectious disease specialist and pediatric hospitalist Dr. Sharon Vuppula from Nashua. Dr. Vuppula, thank you very much for joining us.
Dr. Sharon Vuppula: Hi, Peter. Thank you for having me.
Peter Biello: Over the course of this hour, we're going to be touching on topics like academic preparedness, mental health and safety protocols that schools are employing to keep kids safe. And again, we really do want to hear from you. So that number is (603) 513-7700. And if emailing is easier for you, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We're already hearing from some folks throughout the Granite State. Sarah in Sunapee wrote to us to say,
"I quit my teaching job last year. It was a terrible fit and compounded with COVID I just couldn't handle it. The stress took a physical toll on my health as well. New, single teachers can barely afford to live. I couldn't justify being put through so much stress and being paid so little. I can't imagine how students and teachers must feel going back to school this year with masks and the pandemic, just as scary as it was last year."
And we also heard from Laura in Durham who wrote,
"My two kids are returning to school in person. One is vaccinated. One is ineligible. I am a nervous wreck. Sending them in without a mask mandate would have been unfathomable. So, I am grateful that our district is requiring masks for all students and adults. I wish trials for the vaccines had been started earlier so they could have been approved for kids 11 and younger before the start of the school year with COVID numbers on the rise, it is difficult for me to feel comfortable with in-person instruction for my kids, although that is what we are planning."
Thanks to Laura in Durham and thanks to Sarah and Sunapee for writing to us. If you have something you'd like to share, email email@example.com, or, again, (603) 513-7700. So, Sarah Gibson, let's start with how districts are planning to start the school year. How are they starting the school year in the next few weeks?
NHPR Education Reporter Sarah Gibson: So, in spite of some of the anxieties, you know, we just heard from the emails, districts are mostly fully in-person this year, which is a big change from last fall for many districts. They'll be having some of the same safety measures that were put in place last year. In some cases, that's updated HVAC and air filtration systems. And many of those are actually paid for with federal COVID relief aid. There will be, in some schools, an attempt at social distancing of three feet if possible. School buses, by federal law, will require face masks. And then, depending on a school board's decision, those face masks may be required in the building, too. That will be the case in some of New Hampshire's big districts, including Concord, Nashua and Manchester. And then in terms of kind of screening and sending kids home, should they have symptoms of COVID-19, the state's guidance is that if a student is in school, has symptoms of COVID-19, they should go home. They'll be asked to get a negative COVID test or quarantine for a certain number of days. And if there is an outbreak in the school, i.e., a bunch of cases in a school building, state health officials say they will work with schools to contact trace and manage that outbreak.
Peter Biello: And Dr. Vuppula, health officials say there's no silver bullet when it comes to keeping COVID out of schools, but there are layers of mitigation that can help keep schools relatively safe, that include vaccination, air filters, social distancing and, yes, masks. So, in your view, what should schools prioritize? Or is this an all-of-the-above prioritization situation?
Dr. Sharon Vuppula: Yeah, so, great question. And yes, we are taking a layered approach in terms of our mitigation strategy, but the key mitigation strategy that's central to prevention of transmission is getting your kids who are eligible to be vaccinated. So, that is, I've said this before, that is our way out of this pandemic. This pandemic has created so much disruption for our children, both medically, economically, socially, as far as their education, their relational skills. So really, to get your kids vaccinated, that's the number one thing to do to prevent disease transmission. And, yes, as you mentioned, all the other mitigation strategies, such as mask-wearing, hand hygiene, disinfection of surfaces, improving ventilation and social distancing, all are still very important. We are all a little rusty in New Hampshire when it comes to these mitigation measures, because we've had this pretty relatively low number of cases over the summer. So, it's time to again start talking to our kids about those mitigation strategies.
Peter Biello: Yeah, and a lot of us have spent the summer outdoors where masks aren't generally required. And even some indoor spaces, once people were getting vaccinated, weren't requiring masks. But now a lot of them are again. And as school boards across the state are weighing whether or not to implement mask mandates, as that conversation continues, Dr. Vuppula, what can you tell us about how effective masks in schools are when it comes to slowing the spread of COVID-19?
Dr. Sharon Vuppula: Yeah, so studies have shown that masks truly do reduce the transmission of COVID-19 in schools as well as during sports activities or indoor sports. So, certainly, that is a very important aspect of mitigation. And I do encourage children who are going to school to continue to wear masks. Now, wearing a mask becomes increasingly important if your child is not at an age where they can be vaccinated or if they are a child who could be vaccinated, but, you know, is not wearing a mask, becomes very important. As many of us already know, CDC recommended for masking regardless of vaccination status when in an indoor public setting. And so in accordance to that, I'm in agreement with that. And there are reasons for that. We have a very problematic variant of concern, which is the delta variant. It can cause very high viral replication, mainly in the nose. And so there's an increased rate of transmission. And so wearing a mask, even if you're fully vaccinated, becomes very important.
Peter Biello: Let's go to the phones and listeners, if you'd like to contribute to this conversation, whether it's a story you have to tell or a question you have for either Sara or Dr. Vuppula, give us a call now. The phone number is (603) 513-7700. And let's talk to Scott in Keene. Scott, thank you very much for calling. What's your question or comment?
Scott in Keene: As someone who works in the public school education, I've been pleased that we're doing the second best thing that we can do within the schools, at least my school district, we're mandating the mask-wearing. I hate wearing the thing. But when you look at the science it's the appropriate thing to do. But I think it's time to step up and do the very best thing we can do and not just mandate mask-wearing, but, at least for staff within the buildings, staff should be mandated to vaccinate. Unless you've got a religious or a health reason not to. It's just time to do it.
Peter Biello: Mandating vaccinating teachers. Thank you very much, Scott. I appreciate your call. Let's put that to Sarah Gibson. Is there something in the works, Sarah, for school districts to mandate vaccination for teachers?
NHPR Education Reporter Sarah Gibson: I have not heard that that's in the works in any districts I've spoken to. However, the NEA, the state's largest teachers union in New Hampshire, has actually said that it is for a mask mandate in schools, excuse me, a vaccination mandate in schools for staff, and that if staff choose not to get to get vaccinated, they would be subject to regular testing for COVID-19. So the NEA is in support of that, both nationally and locally. I haven't actually heard that that's something that school boards are considering right now.
Peter Biello: What do we know about vaccination rates among staff and students so far? Is there anything that we can know about that?
NHPR Education Reporter Sarah Gibson: Yeah, that's a good question. So, basically, in terms of staff level, some districts have asked their staff to kind of self-report and I'm hearing between 80 and 90% of staff are vaccinated. However, it really shifts depending on the district and town. And then in terms of students ages 12 to 19 who are in middle school and high school, we don't have a great sense of that. I haven't heard yet of districts asking for students to self-report and, in some ways, that's a shame because you could actually develop mask rules and other kind of mitigation measures based on your vaccination rate. However, the state does have town vaccination rates, and you can actually go on to the state dashboard and look at the age group vaccination rate. So, I know school nurses who are, to get a sense of how many students are vaccinated approximately, are actually going on to that state dashboard, looking at their town or their district, seeing what the vaccination rate is for young people. In many cases, it's really low between the ages of 12 and 19. For instance, Nashua and Manchester, that age group, I'm seeing is around 7%. So, a long ways to go in terms of getting to 80% or above vaccination rate.
Dr. Sharon Vuppula: Peter, I just wanted to make a few comments on this issue of vaccine mandates. As many of us already know, well, actually, yesterday, Pfizer BioNTech approved their vaccine for children 16 years and older. And so this is not under the emergency use authorization, but this is now a fully approved vaccine. So, I think that's something that parents and educators will have to be keeping up on in terms of vaccine mandates. I'm certainly not a legal expert, but there is a possibility of more vaccine mandates occurring.
Peter Biello: Because schools do, to some extent, mandate some vaccines, right? For things that have long ceased to be widespread problems like measles, mumps, rubella, that kind of thing.
Dr. Sharon Vuppula: Well, there are a couple of things that are unique to New Hampshire. Number one is that Governor Sununu recently passed the Medical Freedom Bill, which basically prohibits public entities to mandate vaccines, and that does include public schools, for example. Now, yes, there are vaccines that are mandated in schools in New Hampshire, but there is the medical and the religious exemption that can allow a child to not have to have a vaccine. So, this is a very interesting issue and certainly a hot topic and something to stay tuned about because it's not clear. The Defense Department is mandating that service members get vaccinated. Hospitals, both locally and nationally, are mandating that their staff is also vaccinated. So, another example are colleges who are mandating vaccines for students that are going to be doing in-person learning. So, there is definitely a trend towards mandating vaccines. But in New Hampshire, there are certain limitations, especially when it comes to public education.
Peter Biello: We are certainly not done talking about vaccines, but we want to hear from listeners about anything related to the upcoming school year that happens to be on your mind right now. Call (603) 513-7700. You can also send us an email. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And we got this email from Connell Jacques from Bow. He is nine years old and says,
"I am starting a new school this year. They are not making masks mandatory, but I want to wear one. How do I make new friends wearing a mask? What should I say if someone makes fun of me for wearing it? Masks keep everyone safe."
That's the comment from Connell. It sounds like he's asking for some advice. Maybe I'll go to you, Dr. Vuppula. What would you say to Connell?
Dr. Sharon Vuppula: Yes. Hi, Connell. I appreciate that question so much. You're clearly a thoughtful young man. So, yes, wearing a mask is very important to your safety this year, especially given the emergence of the delta virus. And I think that both you and your parents should look at this situation as an opportunity as opposed to a challenge. And, you know, this is an opportunity for you to stand up for what you feel is best for your body and for your health. It's also an opportunity to see who are your real friends. Are they going to be people who understand that? And it's fine if they themselves don't want to wear a mask, but will they respect you wearing a mask? And I think this year will actually provide you the ability to make true friends. So, I hope that that's helpful. And there should never be any mask-shaming or bullying that you endure because you are wearing a mask. So, please involve your teachers and your parents if that does happen.
Peter Biello: Much respect to you, Connell, for reaching out to us tonight. Again, listeners, give us a call, (603) 513-7700. If you've got a question or comment about how you're feeling as the new school year approaches. Let's talk now to Matt in Keene. Matt, thank you very much for calling. You're on the air.
Matt in Keene: Hi there. Good evening. So, I'm a public educator in southwest New Hampshire. In fact, I know your previous caller there, Scott. Just a shout out to Scott, he was the one that was talking about last year's experiences. I just wanted to say that last year, as an educator, I noticed that a lot of the political divide that was happening in the country, nationally, about wearing masks as a mask mandate was also happening on the local level, it followed those same exact lines. And it's really frustrating for me as an educator to see some of the students just taking sides because they believe the political ideology and I'm not talking about necessarily from the right, but also from the left, too. So, one thing that I think would really, really help is if we had strong leadership on the state level, specifically from the governor's office. If things do get bad again, and it certainly seems like they are going to get bad again, because right now we're at the end of the summer season, everybody's outside, a lot of people aren't in school, they're not in college, and our numbers are going up, and they're going up and they're going up, every single day. Yesterday in Keene, New Hampshire, there were 17 new cases.
Peter Biello: Go ahead, please do wrap up your point, Matt.
Matt in Keene: Yeah, sorry, and just to say that if you have a strong leadership on the state level saying, 'listen, masks are mandated, it's not really up to the local school district, it's not really up to your town.' The entire state of New Hampshire, we live in a relatively small state. Let's have a mass mandate if things get worse for all indoor places, for all public settings. That way, there won't be any political divide whatsoever from the right or the left.
Peter Biello: Well, thank you very much for your comments, Matt. And to you, Sarah Gibson. You've been following the science and the politics of mask mandates and vaccines and everything. So, please do respond to Matt.
NHPR Education Reporter Sarah Gibson: Sure. So, I mean, I think Matt is one of many people who have shared with me that school boards and schools are really becoming the site for the country's culture wars and for a lot of, in some cases, misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. And it puts teachers in a tricky spot. It puts school board members in a tricky spot. There are certainly school board meetings have been going on for hours, there are some going on right now, as we speak tonight, that are all about whether or not there should be a mask mandate in schools. And so I've certainly heard people saying we wouldn't be having all these discussions, and in some ways, real arguments on a local level, were the governor to pass a statewide mask mandate, including in schools.
However, I've also heard from other district leaders and from others that keeping this kind of local control approach is really helpful. One of the arguments for it is, say, in the North Country, if the all the schools in the North Country were to follow CDC and state health guidance and move into a mask mandate for everyone, because they have substantial transmission of the coronavirus, that would mean that they wouldn't be able to make local decisions based on where that outbreak is actually is. So, for instance, last week, high transmission of the virus in the North Country, but most of it was in the federal prison. There was an outbreak there. Does that mean that a school really far from that prison should have a full mask mandate? Some administrators in those towns have said, we actually really appreciate being able to decide yes or no to the mask mandate without the governor's interference.
Peter Biello: The argument for local control. We've got to take a quick break, but I want to just reset because you're listening to NHPR's Community Conversation: COVID and the Classroom. I'm Peter Biello. We're discussing the coming school year and we want to hear from you. How do you feel about starting this new year as the delta variant of the coronavirus spreads? What effect is all of this having on students' mental health in particular? We'd love to hear from you about that, but about anything else on your mind as well. Call us, (603) 513-7700. We'll be right back.
Listener Voice: I'm feeling comfortable. If you look at the maps on New Hampshire, we're in fairly good shape and we have a good percentage of vaccination. And I think that gives me some comfort sending my kids and sending this out in public.
Listener Voice: Feeling anxious about this is totally normal and even adults are experiencing it. I want to make sure that she understands that there's nothing strange at all about being intimidated by doing something you haven't done in a year and a half.
Listener Voice: I'm excited because I'm going to see my friends in person and not on the computer screen and my science teacher, also my health teacher, because they're one of the best teachers I have. And last thing I'll say is: my best friend.
Peter Biello: Welcome back. I'm Peter Biello, and this is NHPR's Community Conversation: COVID and the Classroom, a pop-up discussion about going back to school amid the rise of the delta variant. Among the many concerns both students and teachers are raising are about mental health. Being locked away in our homes for remote learning was, to put it mildly, difficult. But going back into schools with the highly contagious delta variant spreading so quickly, even among the vaccinated, presents its own kind of anxiety. We're here with NHPR education reporter Sarah Gibson and pediatric infectious disease specialist and pediatric hospitalist Dr. Sharon Vuppula. And also with us now, Talley Westerberg. She's a social worker at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton and she's seen firsthand how the pandemic has affected students' mental health. Talley, thank you very much for being on the show tonight.
Social Worker Talley Westerberg: Thank you so much for having me. I'm honored to be here with you tonight.
Peter Biello: We're honored to have you. And we're honored to have you, dear listeners, calling in with your stories, your questions, your comments. We'd love to hear from you. We will be talking about mental health, but the conversation will move on from there to anything and everything about going back to school this school year. The phone number for you to call, (603) 513-7700. That's (603) 513-7700. You can also send us an email if you'd like. The address is email@example.com. So, Talley Westerberg, you've been meeting with high school students recently. What are they sharing with you?
Social Worker Talley Westerberg: So, I think when we want to consider what student mental health looks like right now, it's always important to start with a nod to how powerfully resilient kids are. Like adults, our kids are multidimensional. They have a balance of strengths and weaknesses, of unique gifts and skills. And they, like us, live in environments with protective and risk factors that shape their experience. There are some kids for whom the pandemic has been a time of rest and reprieve from the social complexities of school, deepening connection with their family and friends. And then some who perhaps have mastered some new skills or maybe honed in on their interests. But we do know, for many of our students, that this has been a time of unspeakable grief and loss, excruciating loneliness, financial hardship and instability and exposure to significantly traumatic experiences. Even before COVID, YRBS [Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System] data supported that depression and suicide were considerable public health concerns among New Hampshire teens, and especially for youth experiencing homelessness or youth who identify as LGBTQ. And pandemic life has really reduced access for all of us to our most proven mechanisms of healing, right? Physical touch, sharing a meal, relational connectedness. And so I think these are profoundly difficult times for our students and our families.
Peter Biello: You've just named quite a few ways in which students really feel the mental health impacts. I'm wondering if you could paint a picture for us about how those impacts impact learning. If there's an example you can give, I know you can take out identifying information, but can you draw that connection for us a little more clearly?
Social Worker Talley Westerberg: Absolutely. I think you can't separate mental health from learning. And depending on the age of a child, emotional difficulty often shows up first as a physical complaint, right? Stomach aches, nausea, headaches, sleeping too much or too little. And all of us know how hard it is to focus and be available for anything when we don't feel physically well. But then it often looks like an inability to focus, difficulty sitting still, avoidance, irritability, numbness, any of those things that can minimize a child's capacity to engage with whatever content is being presented. In order for students to access those parts of their brain that are necessary to take in new information, we know that students have to feel safe, connected and emotionally regulated.
And so I think it's going to be desperately important as we return to school for both the adults and the students, because I think we heard, I really appreciated the educators that have called in for how challenging it has been to be an educator in this environment, but it's going to be really important for all of us to continue to tune into that relational connectedness in the classroom and to really establish new routines that provide consistent opportunities to teach and to practice self-regulation skills. I think students really exhibit sort of their impact on their learning and a lot of different ways for some kids that really has been avoid, avoid, avoid, you know, not getting engaged in the remote learning, not coming to school. And for some kids, it's been that big come, but maybe haven't been able to focus. I think we've seen it in tons of different ways, depending on the individual student and their particular experience.
Peter Biello: Well, teachers, educators. Is that Dr. Vuppula? I would love to hear from you, actually, about at what point there should be an intervention when you hear a child may be having a really hard time?
Dr. Sharon Vuppula: Yes. This is what I wanted to comment on. Recently there was a study put out through the CDC where they looked at emergency room visits for suicide attempts, and they found that since the start of the pandemic, there has been an increase in suicide attempts between ages 12 to 17 years old in girls. And there has been a 50% increase since 2019. So and then at other time points, there was a 30% increase in this age group among girls in terms of suicide attempts. So this is a very significant number and it reflects that certainly girls that are in this age group are exceptionally vulnerable. And I agree with everything that was said that all of our children are at risk as a result of the many disruptions of this pandemic. But certainly children who are minorities, children who are LGBTQ and children who have chronic medical needs and adolescent girls are at increased risk.
So in terms of what should be done, is that parents really do need to be vigilant in looking for symptoms of deteriorating mental health. And the symptoms differ based on the age group, for example, toddlers who go to preschool, for example, they might, as was already mentioned, have issues with regression of milestones, eating issues, abdominal pain. And children who are in elementary school, for example, may manifest their symptoms with worsening grades or abdominal pain, sleep disturbances. And adolescents are a really tough group to kind of be vigilant for because they withdraw when they have mental health issues. They are aware of the shame or the stigma associated with it. So, something to remember is that an adolescent males depression can present not as sadness, but it can present as aggression. So it's very important for parents to constantly be talking to their children and be observant of these signs.
Now, as a pediatrician, I have to stress that if you see a child who is talking or has a plan to commit suicide or harm another person, it's very important that you take them to the emergency room if that's something that you can do in that situation or call 911. Some of these suicidal thoughts and feelings do manifest in social media. So that's kind of a domain that parents don't necessarily always have access to. So it's very important to be aware of that. And if your child's friends mention anything that should be taken seriously
Peter Biello: And we should mention that there are a lot of resources for people who are struggling emotionally, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is 1 (800) 273-8255. That's 1 (800) 273-TALK. And thank you, Dr. Vuppula, for bringing up those important points. I want to bring in a question from a listener who emailed us.
Beth Fox in Wolfeboro asks,
"What is being done to advance mental health services in New Hampshire schools? So important at this time. Schools have always been the most economical and far reaching emotional support for kids and families. But nurses and other staff are stretched to the limit."
So that's the comment from Beth Fox. If you'd like to email one, by the way, firstname.lastname@example.org is the email address. And Talley Westerberg, can I put that question to you from Beth Fox? What do you think?
Social Worker Talley Westerberg: Absolutely. I think that I also just want to echo everything that Dr. Vuppula said and offer one additional resource, and that is the Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQ youth. The Trevor Project 24/7. Their Trevor Chat is amazing. And I think, you know, the email that you just received about what are schools doing. Nurses are stretched thin. School counselors are stretched thin. Certainly, that's the case. I do think that there's been an influx in increasing the number of school social workers and mental health in our state. You know, we New Hampshire school social workers have a bit of an email group and get-together and there's a formalized organization where we collaborate. And the numbers of people who are involved in that have grown significantly in the last 20 years or so, even before COVID. But I think that a lot of schools are using their CARES or ESSER [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief] funds to pay for mental health positions or programs, which are vitally important. I think there's a concern that, you know, once those federal grant funds run out, they will then become on the dime of the district taxpayers. So I think people need to consider that.
All schools in New Hampshire are now required to provide training for staff and students on suicide prevention every year, so this will be ongoing. Many schools have also all partnered with our own Chief Justice Broderick's Change Direction Program, in which she's spoken to thousands of kids and families about mental health. The five signs of emotional suffering and how to seek help around mental illness. But I think I would say schools are doing all that they can, and that is both in a one-on-one relational context between a student and a staff member, and schools are providing staff-wide training around trauma-sensitive care and how to provide that safe, connected environment for schools. Because I think you're right, school nurses, social workers and counselors can't do everything for every kid in the building. But I think that we can and will respond.
So, I think any parent who's concerned about their own child, it's super helpful to communicate with your school counselor or really any trusted adult within your school community, a coach, administrator, nurse, so that someone in the building can have that insight, that your kid is really struggling so that they can make an extra effort to build a connection with that student.
Peter Biello: Well, Talley Westerberg is a social worker at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton. Talley, thank you very much for sharing your insights with us. We really appreciate it.
Social Worker Talley Westerberg: Thank you so much.
Peter Biello: And Dr. Vuppula, it seems, would you like to weigh in?
Dr. Sharon Vuppula: Yes. Before we move on from the mental health issue, I would be remiss not to mention this one thing. So, I think it's very important that parents have a certain conversation before school starts, and that is basically to tell their kids that we are no longer in the terrifying phase of the pandemic. And by that, I mean we are not where we were in March 2020, where we didn't know how this virus was going to behave, we didn't have a vaccine, we didn't have any medication, and we basically knew very limited amount of information.
So, though we are nowhere near finishing this battle with COVID-19, it's very important to calm our kids' anxieties by telling them that, "you know what, COVID-19 is moving towards being a vaccine-preventable disease." We know what mitigation measures work and they are being implemented, right? And we also know that children typically have mild or asymptomatic infection. And, yes, there is a rise in pediatric cases due to delta. But again, it's very important to reassure kids that we are no longer in that phase of the terrifying part of the pandemic.
Peter Biello: Listeners, give us a call if you'd like to weigh in about how you feel. Are you scared or are you feeling pretty optimistic about the school year? We do, after all, have part of the population now that is vaccinated against the coronavirus, which has been shown to reduce hospitalizations and deaths due to this disease. So perhaps that is one reason to be optimistic. We also heard before the show today from Katie Aronson. She's 13 years old. She lives in Keene. She has been vaccinated, but she still doesn't know quite what to expect. Here's what she said.
Katie Aronson: Like, sometimes we'll talk about our greatest fears and sometimes people will say the unknown just because it's so uncontrollable. So I think the unknown is sort of scaring most people. Adults more than kids, but like everybody has that little bit of fear from the unknown.
Peter Biello: Dr. Vuppula, what do you think of that? Adults more than kids really feeling the fear here?
Dr. Sharon Vuppula: I do think so. There is a survey that was put out again through the CDC, which showed that parents who had children doing hybrid learning or remote learning had more heightened amounts of anxiety, as well as depression. So, certainly the parents are equally being affected in terms of not knowing how the school year is going to look.
Peter Biello: Well, listeners, we're having this NHPR Community Conversation: COVID and the Classroom, in advance of this next school year. I'm Peter Biello and we're discussing this year, and we want to hear from you. After a short break, we're going to talk about whether kids have fallen behind in their learning because of the pandemic and what can be done about it. Call us, (603) 513-7700. Again, that number (603) 513-7700. You can also send us an email email@example.com. We'll be right back.
Peter Biello: Welcome back. I'm Peter Biello, and this is NHPR's Community Conversation: COVID and the Classroom, a pop-up discussion of this year's back to school season and the rise of the delta variant. NHPR education reporter Sarah Gibson and pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. Sharon Vuppula are here to answer your questions about the coming school year. Our phone number is (603) 513-7700, (603) 513-7700. We'd also love to hear your stories. How do you feel? We want to check in with you emotionally in this moment in the pandemic. You can also send us an email. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
We got this note from Jessica Dunbar in Bow, who wrote,
"In terms of kindergarten, our anxieties are resurfacing as the first day of school approaches. It seems like the number of cases per day has taken a sudden leap at just the past few weeks, leaving us little time to reconsider our plans. When I reflect on this time last year, it seems crazy to me that I nearly pulled him out of preschool when there were only 20 new cases per day. But we have not seriously questioned sending him to kindergarten, even though new daily cases are now numbering in the hundreds. Despite the authorization of highly effective vaccines, the situation is actually worse than it was this time last year. Not only are caseloads higher, but this delta variant is more contagious. Even though we're vaccinated, I've heard many stories of breakthrough cases. And even though my kids are otherwise healthy, I still don't want them to get it. My biggest fear is long-hauler symptoms, which seem to be a possibility for children and vaccinated adults."
That's the comment from Jessica Dunbar in Bow. If you have questions or comments, give us a call, (603) 513-7700.
And let's turn now to Patrick Keefe, head of the teachers union in Litchfield and a teacher at Campbell High School. Patrick, thank you very much for being here. It's great to have you on the phone tonight. So I wanted to ask you, Patrick, it's been a tough year and a half. How are you and your colleagues feeling about the start of the school year?
High School Teacher Patrick Keefe: Well, first of all, Peter, thank you for having me here this evening. I think it's important to hear lots of different voices from teachers. Well it's interesting because in March of 2020, along came the pandemic. And everyone went to remote learning. I think everyone sort of realized in education, and across the country, that there were going to be some impacts going remote in that instruction wouldn't it be the same. It wouldn't be delivered or received in the same manner. So, we were told in our district and across the state, they were telling teachers, and across the nation, to acknowledge that and to grant the students some grace, which seems to be an acknowledgment that education was going to be a little bit different. Then last year came along, the 2021 last fall school year, and in our district, we were in school in a full time in-person model most of the year. I think we had two weeks after Thanksgiving in which we went remote. The rest we were in school full time. The problem was that we were using the blended synchronous model of instruction, Room and Zoom, so that model requires teachers to teach to students in the classroom and the students at home.
Peter Biello: And can I pause you here? I want to check on how you felt during that period.
High School Teacher Patrick Keefe: It was difficult, I mean, as both a teacher and as a first year president of the local association in Litchfield. That was one of the major issues for teachers last year that really affected their ability to offer that high quality of instruction, which we're accustomed to offering. So, there were a lot of challenges last year, but I think the blended synchronous model was one of the big ones in our district. You know, we we went ahead, though, in full steam ahead, and we learned a lot of us weren't as adept at technology. We soon had to learn a lot of different technological platforms and so forth that we might not have. So we did learn a lot, but it was difficult. And we saw... I don't have any hard data in front of me as far as test scores. I wasn't able to acquire that in time. I just acquired some of it, but I haven't really analyzed it enough. But I can tell you that anecdotally, we saw massive student disengagement last year.
Peter Biello: Can I ask you about that? Like what do you mean by disengagement? Were they just so frustrated that they decided not to interact with their teachers or do their homework? Or were they struggling but couldn't quite understand the material with the kind of instruction that was offered to them?
High School Teacher Patrick Keefe: Yeah, that's a good question, Peter. It was multifaceted. I think students were handing in work late a lot, more so than other years, or are not handing in at all. So, we saw a lot of that. We saw a lot less participation, I believe, in the classrooms overall as far as student-led discussions or teacher-student discussions or what have you. So, we saw a lot of that. And it was quite evident that the students were just receiving a different type of education. And we also saw it in student morale. I mean, I worked in a district, I'm very fortunate, where the students are really great and they come to school. And it's not utopia, but I would say for the most part, it's easy to get them engaged. You can really build a good relationship with them. Well, last year, there were a lot of students who were just disengaged. I had in classes for three years, and then last year they sort of became more disengaged. So, you know, we really saw the impacts of COVID on student motivation.
Peter Biello: So, to what extent are you optimistic that this year's going to be different?
High School Teacher Patrick Keefe: Well, it's a good question. Everyone's vaccinated. We've been told in our district that we're not going to go towards a blended synchronous model, that there may be some cases where a student has a medical condition in which it might be appropriate for them to attend the class remotely, which I think teachers will obviously sympathize with. But it's not going to just be students being able to check in and out when they want to. And also kids won't be able to quarantine, I mean, if they have to quarantine because of COVID, they will receive their instruction asynchronously through tools like Google Classrooms, the main one that we're using. But it won't be synchronous. You know, online instruction, blended synchronous model, Room and Zoom.
Peter Biello: Well, let me ask you, Patrick Keefe, what are you looking forward to the school year?
High School Teacher Patrick Keefe: I'm looking forward to getting back with my colleagues and my students and having a sort of typical school year, even though I know it's not going to be exactly typical. But I think it will be less atypical than last year, because, again, everyone 12 and up that wants to be vaccinated is vaccinated. I know, in our district, we've mandated masking for K through sixth [grade] and in seventh [grade] through 12th [grade] it will be optional. But again, most of those students and teachers have had the opportunity to get vaccinated. So, I think there'll be less apprehension concerning your personal health because so many are vaccinated. So, I'm looking forward to having that real world on-hand experience where students and teachers are engaging in a hearty, dynamic discussion, robust discussion in the classroom and just getting back to seeing those smiling faces of students. It really energizes you as a teacher.
Peter Biello: Well, Patrick Keefe, head of the teachers union in Litchfield and a teacher at Campbell High School, thank you so much for speaking with us this evening. We really appreciate it.
High School Teacher Patrick Keefe: Thank you for having me, Peter.
Peter Biello: And listeners, there's still time for you to call with your questions or comments. Tell us about what you're excited about this coming school year or what you're dreading, or both. You can contain multitudes. Our number is (603) 513-7700, (603) 513-7700. Or email us email@example.com. We spoke before the show with Amy Mash, mother of a 14 year old, about what her concerns are with the return to the school year. Let's hear from her.
Amy Mash: I really want to see her be successful with her academics again, because she's always really prided herself on getting good grades. So, it was kind of a tough blow for eighth grade when her grades dropped so low, it really bummed her out. And it's hard to watch your kid struggle like that and know that it's just something they have to get through and that you can be there to support them and help them, but they have to do it on their own.
Peter Biello: NHPR's Sarah Gibson, what can you tell us about what districts and teachers are saying about learning loss?
NHPR Education Reporter Sarah Gibson: Sure. So, what I've heard is that there definitely is learning loss, but in some cases it wasn't as profound as we had feared. So, a year ago and during this past year, there's a lot of coverage and frankly, just a lot of anguish about that potential kind of "lost year" to students. And I do want to be clear, there are kids who didn't go to kindergarten, for instance, because it's optional and they are really behind on language development. There are kids who stayed home who really struggled with poor Internet, poor technology, poor connection and with very little support. They are really far behind.
But, as we heard from Talley, a lot of people I've heard from who work with kids say they're really resilient. And in many cases, they were pretty creative about, particularly in the spring when many people were back in the classroom, figuring out ways to catch up. So, the question of kind of quantifying learning loss is still a little bit up in the air. We just heard that data is still coming in, into Litchfield, for instance, and it looks like the state is looking at their statewide assessments, seeing where the learning loss happened. So I'll definitely be looking forward to seeing those numbers, because right now it's still pretty anecdotal. And we don't have hard numbers on what the learning loss actually looked like, in what subjects and with what demographics.
Peter Biello: And Dr. Sharon Vuppula, I wanted to ask you about something that Patrick Keefe just said a little while ago with respect to morale among students, took a nosedive during the pandemic. In your view, Dr. Vuppula, how do we keep kids' morale up, especially if they feel like they're falling behind?
Dr. Sharon Vuppula: Yeah, that's a really tough thing to do, and again, certain age groups, it's easier than others. But again, I think this pandemic has given an opportunity to get back into some of the healthy rhythms of life that have been neglected maybe before the pandemic. So, again, close communication with your child, one-on-one time with your child, spending time with your child outdoors, navigating any difficulty that comes up during the school year with them and really building resilience, which is such a tough thing, whether you're an adult or a child. And promoting flexibility and acceptance of the unknown. So these are some of the things I can think of, but certainly not an easy task to be a parent right now.
Peter Biello: Right. We all had to teach ourselves a little bit of lessons in resilience over the past year and a half, that's for sure. We've got listeners emailing some questions. I want to make sure that we get their questions and stories in as much as we can within the last few minutes here. Nick asks us, "What steps are New Hampshire public schools taking to provide universal rapid testing, including of asymptomatic individuals?" Sarah Gibson, what have you heard on that?
NHPR Education Reporter Sarah Gibson: Yeah, that's a great question. So, as some people might have heard, New Hampshire got about $40 million from the feds to expand its testing, and it actually is oriented towards asymptomatic testing. So, in fact, there is a program that the State Health Department is running that schools can sign up for and it's actually really geared towards asymptomatic cases among students and staff who maybe are at higher risk, say they've traveled recently or they're on a sports team. So there is a screening program that's available free of charge to schools for asymptomatic individuals. But the uptake hasn't been super high yet. I've heard, as of last week, there are about 50 schools that are participating in that.
But there's this other question about, how do you quickly screen and test for asymptomatic individuals? And I'm still trying to get to the bottom of the extent to which schools have access to testing and/or can quickly send a student home and then ensure that that student has access to affordable testing in the community. So, I think that would be an interesting thing to watch. But, for sure, schools can work, depending on a couple of different stipulations, can work with the State Health Department for asymptomatic screening free of charge.
Peter Biello: We've got time for just one more comment from a listener. So I do want to bring this in. Julia, a pediatric oncologist in Hanover, emailed to say that she's worried about her immunocompromised patients and the risk presented by sending sick kids to school. She writes,
"I know some well-intentioned families are doing their best and lack a financial safety net. These families would like to keep their mildly ill child at home, but may have no choice but to send them to school so they can earn an income to keep food on the table and the lights on. There may also be other families who would like to continue remote learning, but their school district is restricting the option. There are a lot of tough decisions and uncertainty ahead for my patients as well as other families. There's no history to guide us. COVID has never happened before."
That's from Julia. We've got to wrap up, but I do want to thank NHPR's Sarah Gibson and Dr. Sharon Vuppula for joining us this hour. Thanks to both of you for being here. We really appreciate it.
NHPR Education Reporter Sarah Gibson: You're welcome.
Dr. Sharon Vuppula: Thank you, Peter.
Peter Biello: This has been an NHPR Community Conversation: COVID and the Classroom, a pop-up discussion of this year's back to school session. The conversation continues on Facebook and Twitter. And we still welcome your emails and firstname.lastname@example.org. Julia Furukawa produced today's show and answered your calls. The engineer is Emily Quirk. Cori Princell directed the show. Michael Brindley provided oversight. Zoey Knox is our engagement producer. Gabi Healy is our digital and social media producer. And our theme music was composed by Ty Gibbons. I'm Peter Biello. Thank you very much for listening to NHPR, News from New Hampshire and NPR.
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