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Task Force on Reopening N.H. Schools Debates Local Control, Safety Guidelines

Flickr/Ivan Radic

The N.H. Department of Education says districts need to prepare for a hybrid model of remote and in-person learning for the next school year as the pandemic continues.

The hybrid model is one of a list of draft recommendations a state task force is working on to deliver to Gov. Chris Sununu next week.

At a virtual meeting Tuesday, members of the task force raised concerns that while it kept some high-risk teachers and students safer, a hybrid could be unsustainable.

“My biggest fear – and I’ve talked to a lot of teachers - is that we're going to be expected to come back, do our normal Monday-to-Friday job in person, and then go home and do some remote learning with students who will not be coming in,” said Keith Noyes, a teacher at Belmont Middle School, who sits on the task force. “That's a huge concern. That's a big ask.”

The task force – made up of administrators, teachers, and community members across the state – is developing their recommendations based on input from working groups and from responses to a state survey.

Credit Courtesy of NH Department of Education

A majority of the over 55,000 survey participants said they wanted to return to school in the fall, but were concerned about students’ and teachers’ ability to practice social distancing while in the building.

The CDC’s guidance for school reopening emphasizes social distancing, as well as daily temperature screening and face coverings.

But members of the task force disagreed on whether the state should make this guidance mandatory.

Some are wary that requiring certain safety protocols at schools could become an unfunded mandate, and that strict statewide guidance would undermine New Hampshire's tradition of local control.

“If we say that the North Country has to live by what an urban environment looks like, where the conditions around COVID may be very different, that’s a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Phil Nazarro, a State Board of Education member who sits on the task force.

“If the CDC is saying there should be no more than 10 people per room, I don’t think it matters where in the state you are,” responded Noyes. “I think we need to follow that."

Credit Courtesy of NH Department of Education

After the meeting, the NEA-NH, New Hampshire's largest teachers' union, urged the task force to prioritize medical advice in issuing its final recommendations.

“We are very concerned that task force is racing to complete their recommendations in time to reopen schools this fall simply because that is when they are scheduled to be reopened,” said Megan Tuttle, NEA-NH president. "Their timetable does not take into consideration if the virus will be sufficiently contained by then, and whether there will be enough resources for their recommendations to be implemented statewide."

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

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