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Staffing Shortages and COVID-19 Surge Shutting Down More Schools in Southern N.H.

Dan Tuohy for NHPR

Most of New Hampshire's biggest school districts have gone largely remote, as coronavirus cases continue to rise.

Of the state's fifteen largest districts, the majority were in virtual instruction at some point this December.

Many say they're closing because of a combination of factors: more COVID-19 cases among students and staff, and growing staff shortages, as more teachers and paraprofessionals are required to quarantine for 10-14 days after exposure.

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In the Windham school district, for example, around 375 students, teachers and staff were quarantining by the end of last week, prompting the district to switch from in-person to remote instruction until January.

Hopkinton, Concord, and Merrimack have also recently closed school buildings, citing a combination of staff shortages and rising cases.

Related Coverage: Why State Data on COVID-19 Doesn't Tell the Full Story

The decision of whether to go remote has big implications for students, particularly vulnerable ones who rely on in-person school for everything from meals to special education services. And it throws a wrench in parents’ schedules, leading to last-minute staff absences for local businesses, including health centers at the frontlines of the pandemic.

Even in towns with few confirmed cases, coronavirus protocols are making it hard to sufficiently staff schools.

According to many schools’ policies, teachers with low-grade symptoms indicating possible COVID-19 infection are supposed to stay home. Some who have confirmed cases of COVID-19 may feel well enough to teach virtually from home, but that requires the right technology and a substitute teacher to monitor their classrooms.

“Even if they can teach remotely and they feel well enough to do so, and we have the equipment for the students to do so, if there's no one in the classroom itself to monitor in classroom itself, that doesn't help us,” says Bryan Lane, Superintendent of the Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School District.

Substitute teacher shortages have plagued New Hampshire schools for years. Many blame this on the state’s strong economy and the positions’ low pay (until recently, many schools paid subs less than $70/day), and they say the shortage has only gotten worse with the pandemic.

Credit Graphics by Sara Plourde/NHPR

In order to attract more substitute teachers, Wilton-Lyndeborough school board recently doubled its pay for per diem subs to $120 per day, with some success. It’s also managed to hire long-term substitutes with teacher certifications, at $212 per day.

But other districts say in spite of increasing pay, they're still coming up short. In many districts, principals, superintendents, and teachers with a full schedule are now subbing for other teachers out sick or on quarantine, all to keep schools open as long as possible.

“Those are the lengths we’ve had to go to keep schools open,” said Franklin Superintendent Dan Legallo, who recently had to cover for teachers who were quarantined.

“In the past before coronavirus, it would be easy to double up classes or have staff share certain responsibilities, but because we’re in [small] cohorts to keep everybody, none of those situations can be used at this point.”

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