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In Person And On The Screen, N.H.'s New School Year Is Underway

Sarah Gibson for NHPR

A school year like no other is underway in New Hampshire.

By mid-week, most districts had reopened with a fully in-person, hybrid, or remote model, and families, teachers, and students were getting a first glimpse of what education during the pandemic could be like for months to come.

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In the Fall Mountain Regional School District in Langdon, students got their temperature taken at the entrance of the school bus, where they were greeted by a driver behind plastic barriers. Newly hired monitors recorded temperatures and made sure students maintained social distance and kept their masks on.

“It’s good to see the children back, but it’s just not the same,” said Arthur Lufkin, transportation director for the district. “You can’t really tell the expression of a child’s face because of a face mask.”

So far, Lufkin said, they haven’t detected a fever high enough to send a student home.

Windham High School wasn’t as lucky.

The night before teachers and students were expected back in the building, Superintendent Richard Langlois announced that a coronavirus outbreak among students would force the school to start with remote classes. By Wednesday night, the number of confirmed positive cases among students had grown to 16, and the state health department was still conducting contact tracing. 

Langlois said a majority of the positive cases are athletes, and that the cases are being traced to a large gathering. The school is still planning to resume a hybrid model next week.

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Some of the state’s largest districts – including Nashua, Manchester, and Concord – began with a mostly remote model this week but are making plans to transition to hybrid instruction - some days remote, some days in person - later in the fall.

According to the New Hampshire Department of Education, the hybrid model is the most popular among districts.

That’s what Gabrielle Borden’s family in Hampton is getting used to this week.

The elementary-age Borden kids have one teacher for in-person learning and another on virtual learning days. Borden says: so far, so good.

"For the hybrid folks to navigate the remote teacher and in-person teachers – I’m very impressed with the correspondence that we’re getting from all of the educators. They're putting in an effort to make it run smoothly," she said.

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Borden herself teaches English at Winnacunnet High School, which opted to stay remote but invited students into the building this week for 30-minute orientations.

Borden used this time to distribute books, demonstrate how to use Google Classroom, and start building a connection with her students.

"Getting to see them live and in person today felt like a gift," Borden said. "I really and truly feel the reason I was so successful in the spring was because I had a relationship with the kids. And while this [year] wasn’t the same relationship…I got them to laugh, and I cracked jokes, so hopefully it will pull them through the screen a bit once we are full steam ahead."

After months of school board meetings, shifting public health guidance, and often heated debates about reopening, some school leaders and parents expressed relief that classes were starting.

“It was amazing and wonderful to see all of the students in the building, and to have the noise of kids in the halls and kids in classrooms,” said David Backler, superintendent of schools in Gorham and several surrounding towns. “I think the vast majority of students and I know the vast majority of the staff was excited to get school going again.”

Gorham students are returning to school fully in-person, with masks and social distancing guidelines, but Backler said about 10 percent have opted to stay remote.

Nearly all districts gave families an option to be completely remote this semester.

Kavery Daniel, a fifth grader in Rye, decided with his family to stay remote in part because of his asthma. While his mom took his oldest brother to high school, Kavery stayed home, waiting for the codes to log into his virtual classroom.

After a few glitches, he logged on and found himself and several other remote learners projected onto the front screen of their classroom. Kavery tried hard to abide by the remote learning rules - maintain good posture and don't turn off your video - but he said it took a toll.

“I didn’t like the fact that I was sitting at a chair all day and I didn’t get to move," he said.

Kavery’s mom, Courtney Daniel, is still gauging whether going remote was the right long-term choice.

“We got a thousand emails about, ‘This is the expectation. This is what we want the kids to do,’ " she said. "But for me to see it in action, I felt really bad. My heart kind of broke because I’m sitting here watching my kid staring at a screen.”

Becky Sigillo and her husband also chose the remote option. They told their kids it would limit potential COVID-19 exposure to their grandparents and keep them on a consistent schedule.

“We just said to them: You have to learn independence,” Becky Sigillo said. “You guys might be growing up a little faster than the average kid due to the situation of the pandemic, but we're here if you need us; we're not going to leave you high and dry.”

Nor are they going to leave them without oversight. Sigillo, a hair stylist, installed cameras in her daughter's room to keep an eye on her from afar - even when she's cutting hair at her salon in Plaistow.

"I put the video camera on and watched her all day, and it was perfect," she said. "I couldn't be more proud of how engaged she is."

Read more of NHPR's COVID & The Classroom series here. Send story ideas to education@nhpr.org

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