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With Long-Term Remote Learning, N.H. Schools Find Success and Struggle

Courtesy of Liz Kirwan

New Hampshire school districts began another week of remote learning with a new timeline: school closures until at least May, if not the rest of the semester.

Schools are figuring out how to deliver the essentials to students at home, but a lot of teachers and families say that even those basics are overwhelming. 

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For Some, Remote Learning a Resounding Success

New Hampshire has received praise from the White House for its implementation of remote learning, and Gov. Chris Sununu and Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut say it's off to a great start.

On Friday, Commissioner Edelblut, praised district administrators during a statewide conference call.

“You continue to crush it in terms of getting the job done,” he said. “I don't know if I can take the winning anymore, right? We just have all of these great stories coming into the department of everybody who is just doing amazing things out there.”

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Those stories aren’t hard to find. In Rochester, the school district identified neighborhoods where students didn’t have internet access; now, it’s parking school buses with Wi-Fi units in those areas so kids can complete work online.

In Manchester, the Mill Falls Charter School, a public Montessori school, has launched a “social hour” on Google classroom to ensure kids have unstructured time to connect with one another.

And districts that have embraced competency-based education, such as Amherst, Rochester, and Gorham, say they are transitioning more easily to remote learning. In these districts, teachers are trained to help students learn at their own pace, promote individualized learning, and measure learning in creative ways.

Questions About Sustainability and Equity Emerge

Many teachers and families say schools are trying their best in the face of unprecedented challenges, but remote learning is taking its toll.

Districts across the state told NHPR stories of teachers working 12 to 15 hour days. And even then, many teachers can only carve out time for one-on-one check-ins with students once or twice a week.

High schoolers used to using Google classroom and other online learning tools are making a smoother transition than many elementary schoolers, but students with limited internet are losing ground.

In Manchester, teachers learned last week that some of their immigrant students had no access to internet at home. They were told they could use WiFi hotspots set up throughout the city, but some were afraid they would be exposed to the coronavirus or interrogated by police or ICE officials if they lingered near the hotspot for too long.

Other districts face additional barriers in the transition. Until a school board vote Tuesday night, video conferencing for students was prohibited in the Timberlane School District, leaving some students feeling isolated and parents left to oversee everything from physical therapy exercises to math assignments.

Anne Altman, of Milford, is working remotely for the Nashua School District while overseeing school for her two children, a first-grader and kindergartener.

“On a good day, they’re getting my help for an hour and a half and doing two hours of school work,” she said.

“I try to keep a balanced perspective. This morning my daughter was cooking with my husband, and she was learning things that she never would have in school. But my kids are probably going to be a little behind come fall, and we’re just going to roll with it.”

Adjusting Expectations as Remote Learning Goes Long-Term

Some school officials say that in spite of their efforts, they are lowering expectations for the rest of the semester and focusing instead on meeting basic state standards. Many districts are adopting recommendations issued last week by a coalition of administrative and teacher associations who say there should be clearer guidance from the state education department.

Those recommendations include reducing screen time, minimizing the amount of active instruction time per day, and using the fifth day of school each week as a “flex day” for students and teachers to catch up on work and reduce anxiety.

Some elementary schools are considering substituting grades with pass/fail, and many high schools are prioritizing fundamentals to ensure that seniors stay on track to graduate.

But DOE Commissioner Edelblut said this does not constitute a change in expectations for students.

“While we're maybe not today meeting all of the expectations for the students, we're growing into those expectations so that our system will get better and better at meeting our full expectations for all of our students,” he said.

Many teachers say that if a student is motivated and has family support and access to technology, expectations remain high.

“For students that have figured out school and are self-driven, and have learned how to learn, remote learning is super efficient for them,” said Tim Hayman, an English teacher at Inter-Lakes High School in Meredith. “They know what they need to do. For students who are at school for peer education and the social aspect, they’re suffering. And then there’s the disenfranchised who struggle to learn anyway.”

Some districts are looking at offering remedial support in the summer and fall for those students. And many districts are preparing for the likelihood of compensatory services for students with special educations needs that were not met during remote learning. Edleblut said that some of $37 million in federal aid headed to the state Department of Education will go to towards covering a portion of those costs.

As Remote Learning Issues Emerge, Parents Become Districts’ Watchdogs

The state Department of Educaiton is regularly in touch with district administration from across the state, but with New Hampshire's system of local control, the model for remote learning will vary by district. It’s up to them to develop systems for taking attendance, fulfilling students’ special education plans, ensuring regular teacher student contact, and assessing student performance.

Edelblut says he hopes to transition out of “logistics mode” and roll out accountability measures in the next month to track districts’ progress during remote learning. But in the meantime, it’s largely up to parents to figure out how their schools intend to implement remote learning, and to alert their district and state officials if this isn’t working.

Edelblut says if parents have concerns should reach out to their kids’ teachers, principal, district and the N.H. DOE (

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