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In Exeter SAU, School Reopening Debate Driving School Board Race

Voter in Exeter, New Hampshire
Todd Bookman / NHPR

Voters across New Hampshire are choosing school board members today, and in some towns the election has come down to one issue: school reopening.

That’s the case for many residents in SAU 16, which serves Exeter, Brentwood, Kensington, East Kingston, Newfields, and Stratham.

Board chair Helen Joyce, of Stratham, says this is the first time in nine years that someone has run against her. Other historically easy races now have multiple candidates, she says.

“This election is totally different,” she says. “The No. 1 issue on everyone's minds who have children in the system is: Will you bring my child back full time, or won't you?"

The Exeter Region Cooperative School Board has faced criticism for its slow roll-out of hybrid learning, after keeping the middle school largely closed until late November and the high school until late January. Read the list of SAU 16 candidates.

Credit Graphics by Sara Plourde/NHPR

Joyce voted against the postponement but says the district’s strict safety guidelines – maintaining 6-feet distance, rather than 3 feet – and the number of available in-person staff has made reopening particularly challenging.

But as parents observe families from nearby districts returning to school full-time and their own kids struggling at home, frustration is mounting.

Phil Jackson, of Stratham, says watching his 7th and 9th graders spend full days on Zoom from their bedrooms got him so worried about the academic and psychological toll of the pandemic that he jumped into the school board race.

He’s now running to unseat Joyce, on a platform of forgoing some of the district’s COVID rules in order to fully open schools. He and others now vying for school board seats in the SAU say its adherence to 6-foot distancing and other mitigation measures need an update.

“The purpose of guidelines wasn’t to present a permanent set of barriers that by accident prevent a full return to school,”  says Jackson.

“I think we’ve gotten so beaten into submission by the headline news and the dire hysteria of the virus that we’ve forgot ourselves, and forgotten that there are other aspects to living life on planet Earth as a human being," he says.

But regardless of who wins Tuesday's election, the reopening debate will be far from over. Board members in SAU 16 and many other districts will face new questions in the coming weeks, as teachers begin receiving shots, the state monitors recently detected variants,and a large number of families opt to stay fully remote.

Helen Joyce says the only guarantee with the pandemic is that it's unpredictable.

"Things change every day,” she says. “Right now, thank God, they’re changing for the better.”

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