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With Rollout of Teacher Vaccinations, N.H. Schools Ponder Full Reopening

Some of the first teachers in the state received their COVID-19 vaccine shots Friday, as New Hampshire eyes fully reopening more schools.

NHPR Education Reporter Sarah Gibson visited one of the vaccination sites in Dover to get a better look at the process. She joins NHPR's Ed Brouder to discuss where the state is now at and what is next in the vaccine scheduling process.

  Below is a transcript of the broadcast.

ED BROUDER: So tell us what you saw today, who was able to get their first shots?

SARAH GIBSON: So in some towns and cities, schools were able to coordinate with their first responders and their local public health networks. So those places hit the ground running this morning - Berlin, Gorham and Dover. Manchester and Portsmouth will be doing mass vaccinations over the weekend. Teachers who aren't getting access through those local public health networks can start signing up individually next Wednesday, March 17th. But really, the ideal way to do this is to vaccinate all teachers in what's called a closed pod on the same day in a district with the assistance of that local public health network. And that's what happened starting this morning at Dover High School. That's where I met Susan Schlapak. She is a third grade teacher. She had just gotten her first shot when I talked to her. And here's what she said about what it meant to get a shot today.

"I think it will just be a peace of mind for me. It won't change much because we still have to be 6 feet apart and 3 feet apart. But at least I will feel more comfortable."

And so you'll hear not a huge change in her classroom necessarily. But once she's vaccinated fully, she will not have to quarantine if exposed to COVID-19 in the building. So that'll mean that teachers, even if there are some cases, can continue teaching in person and not have to quarantine for a week to two weeks like they've had to before. So by the end of the day, Dover expects to have 800 shots for public and private school staff and teachers delivered. They'll be done with the district by the end of the day.

BROUDER: Does this change anything about that schools plan for when they'll be able to bring students fully back into the classroom?

GIBSON: Not necessarily so. In Dover specifically, most students there were fully remote until pretty recently, and they're actually just getting used to a hybrid model. So there's some resistance to changing to more fully in person. One of the main roadblocks for that is there is a strong 6 foot social distancing rule for the older grades and therefore they can't necessarily accommodate a fuller return. It does seem like it'll be an open question for administrators as well as the school board and the teachers to discuss in the coming months.

BROUDER: Well, there seems to be a lot of debate about what's the appropriate amount of social distancing as the schools are pondering full reopening. Is there consensus among health officials about whether 3 feet, OK, or maybe 6 feet?

GIBSON: That is a big question on the mind of many right now. There is no full consensus on this. The CDC says 6 feet. The World Health Organization says 3 feet. The New Hampshire State Health Department to school says 3 to 6 feet is fine. And preliminary studies are suggesting that 6 feet isn't necessarily the hill to die on. If you have all the other safety measures in place, like universal masking, great air filtration system, good HVACS, proper hygiene, regular testing, that difference between 3 feet and 6 feet isn't necessarily going to make or break your COVID safety plan. But some unions have the 6 foot distancing baked into their agreements with districts, and they hammer those out last summer when more of us were hearing that 6 feet was really important. So earlier today, I spoke with someone who's trying to figure this out. Andrea Folsom is a school board chair in Hopkinton. They're hybrid right now, but they're reading the latest studies on 3 feet versus 6 feet. And here's what she said.

"You know, we are looking not only at protecting our staff and teachers, but protecting our students as well. However, given increased information about 3 feet versus 6 feet, and especially in conjunction with vaccines, it is certainly making going down to 3 feet something that we're working towards."

BROUDER: And a lot of schools are reopening more fully now. Tell us about those decisions and how they've been made.

GIBSON: All right. So a lot of schools have actually been fully open, including elementary schools, for a while now. But Bedford this week was one of those big ones. They reopened their elementary schools and middle schools. High school will be fully reopened by the end of the month. They say this is because they moved to that 3 foot distancing model, but they also have a chunk of their students who've stayed remote. Again, that means that you can accommodate those in-person students more easily because the full student population just hasn't returned. Manchester says with teachers vaccinated, they want to move to four days a week in person by early May. And a number of other districts are debating this very question in the coming weeks.

BROUDER: Well, of course, Sarah, we're entering year two of the pandemic. It's been tough for teachers, students and families. What are you hearing from people about the prospect of reopening?

GIBSON: Everyone I talked to really wants schools to reopen and be normal. Just this morning, a Dover teacher who was getting vaccinated said, yeah, it's nerve-racking to teach in person, but it is so much better than being remote. It's so good to be in person with my students, some of the parents I spoke to are anxious that in spite of declining COVID transmission rates and teachers getting vaccinated, their kids might still be largely remote learning from home in the coming months. Meegan Sciretto is a mom in Portsmouth who I've been talking to. Her kids are in 11th and 8th grade. They've been remote and hybrid for a year now. And she says it's been hard for teachers and really for so many families.

"This is all hard for everyone involved. But with that said, these are our children. We're a year in. They've done everything asked of them and we need to make this work. We owe it to them to figure this out."

And, you know, she's watching teachers get vaccinated. She's watching schools in nearby districts fully reopen. And she's one of many parents calling on her school to change their distancing requirements to three feet so that more kids are back in the building full time.

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

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