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‘There’s No Right Answer’: N.H. Schools And Families Grapple With Reopening Plans

Dan Tuohy / NHPR

When Nicole Finitsis tuned into a recent virtual school board meeting to learn what the fall might look for her second grade twins, she hoped to get some clarity. But instead, she says she left more confused than ever.

“I just feel so torn,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I had enough information being given from this meeting to help me make a safe decision.”

For Finitsis, that decision is whether to send her kids back to their Rochester elementary school, which plans to fully reopen, or to keep her kids home and request remote instruction through the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS).

As Schools Finalize Plans, New Questions Emerge

Finitsis is waiting to hear back about VLACS, but she’s heard the online school – which is funded in part by the state – has already reached capacity and is now putting families on a waitlist. Several superintendents say they have heard the same, though the N.H. Department of Education did not confirm this with NHPR.

Finitsis is one of thousands of parents still in limbo as they await clarity on their districts’ reopening plans. And school leaders warn that even after months of painstaking preparation, there’s still a good chance that plans will shift in the coming month.

“It’s going to be a work in progress probably up until the day we return,” says Dr. Bill Lupini, Superintendent of SAU 21, which includes Winnacunnet High School in Hampton and the surrounding towns. That district is finalizing a plan that would reopen elementary schools at reduced capacity and keep the middle and high schools remote.

The elementary schools are still hammering out how many families will opt for the remote option and how many teachers are willing to return in person.

“It’s a constant readjustment in terms of new information that we get – whether it’s employee requests, or people indicating that ‘yes, my child is coming back to school,’” Lupini says.

Teachers Balancing Job vs. Family

The debate over school reopening has often pitted parents needing to work against teachers who say returning to school isn’t safe. But in many cases, those teachers are also parents.

Gabrielle Borden, an English teacher at Winnacunnet High School, recently learned her kids’ elementary school in another district will go hybrid. That means she will need to work from home several days to oversee them, but she’s not sure if Winnacunnet’s reopening model will allow her to do so.

She says the variation between districts has families like hers juggling impossible schedules.

“I wish we could all get on the same plane,” she says. “When the governor came forward and said he was going to let schools make their own decision…on the one hand that’s fantastic; he’s letting it be up to us. But then it’s like – Oh goodness, now we have to make choices that vary from the town right next door.”

Citing Jobs and Problems with Remote Learning, Some Parents Push for Full Reopening

In Manchester, the teachers’ union has pushed hard to reopen remotely. When the Manchester School District announced its plan to keep grades 2-12 remote until at least October, hundreds of parents aired their frustration on Facebook.

“So what about the working families?” Jay Dente asked. “This remote learning only benefits people who work from home.”

Dente, who works as a heavy duty diesel repair technician, says he and his wife can’t stay home to oversee their elementary-aged kids. And besides, he says, virtual school doesn’t cut it.

“These are crucial times for children of these age groups, where socializing, character building and group participation is the most important - something you cannot teach from behind a laptop or a TV screen,” he told NHPR.

Hybrid Model Seeks Balance, But Still Raises Concerns

In an effort to meet both teachers’ and parents’ requests, many districts are opting for a hybrid model, where students alternate between remote and in-person instruction. School leaders hope this will reduce the number of people in the school building at once while maintaining some perks of traditional school.

But these plans are controversial too.

“Not everybody’s going to be happy, and we recognize that,” says Goffstown superintendent Brian Balke, whose district recently approved a hybrid model. “I have a lot of parents who are upset. They’re struggling. They need their kids cared for. They don’t have the ability to work from home and it’s a real hardship on people. But at the same time, I have to open in a way that I’m going to have the educators that I need to be able to open schools.”

And to have those educators, Balke says it’s crucial to instate strict safety guidelines, such as requiring masks, spacing out desks, and reducing class size.

Carl Ladd, director of the N.H. School Administrators’ Association, says the tensions emerging over reopening are in part because of the state’s tradition of local control and hands-off approach.

“Because there is no clear-cut guidance, it’s really pitting segments of parents against one another in their own communities, as everyone tries to figure out what’s best. Because there is no right answer,” he says. “Everyone thinks there is a right answer. There just isn’t.”


COVID and The Classroom: NHPR wants to understand how this unusual school year is playing out across the state. Every few weeks, we'll ask you to answer a new question. The latest: How has going back to school been different for you this year? Give us a few examples here to help us tell the story.

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

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