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Some N.H. Schools Say They Can't Meet Sununu's Reopening Deadline

Sarah Gibson for NHPR

Some school districts say they need more time to fully reopen than they have under the April 19 deadline Gov. Chris Sununu has set. They point to teacher vaccination timelines, understaffing, and inability to social distance on buses and in some classrooms as the major hurtles to a full return.

After Sununu’s executive order, the Monadnock Regional School District school board voted to stick with their original plan to reopen fully on May 3.

In a letter to Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, the board chairman wrote: “We cannot in good conscience place our partially vaccinated non-fully protected employees in situations where we know less than three feet of distancing is likely."

A number of other school districts are asking Edelblut for waivers to reopen as they originally intended on May 3.

But Sununu said this postponing reopening would put schools out of compliance. 

"We're simply saying: We're not allowing the hybrid and remote learning anymore unless it's requested by the individual, the student themselves. And if schools are insisting on doing that beyond the 19th, it's just not going to count," he said in a press conference on Thursday. "They just have to find a way to to make it happen."

In a letter to Edelblut, Manchester Superintendent John Goldhardt says his district won’t be staffed adequately by April 19, because many teachers are allowed under federal disability law to work remotely until they're fully vaccinated. That date for Manchester staff is April 24.

In SAU 29, which covers Keene and surrounding areas, is also trying to postpone a full reopening until May. One of the major hurtles, it says,  is figuring out how to continue providing a remote option for families as schools fully reopen.

According to the state’s FAQ on the reopening order, schools are only required to continue offering a remote option to students with a medical condition requiring them to remain at home. But many districts are trying to maintain a remote option for families who prefer that for the rest of the semester.

“We know that we're going to need additional staff to make that reality happen,” SAU 29 superintendent Robert Malay told NHPR earlier this week. “And so those are some of the logistical things that we're working through on how we're going to get the additional staff. Where are they going to magically appear from?”

Credit Graphics by Sara Plourde/NHPR
NHPR's COVID & The Classroom is a reporting project looking at the effects of the pandemic on New Hampshire's students, parents, teachers, and schools.

The state's reopening FAQ says districts have "more than enough time to pivot to this instructional model" and that districts would need to prove "extenuating circumstances that risk the health and safety of teachers and students" to receive a waiver of exception.

The state's FAQ also makes it clear that the distancing requirements are less imperative than getting students back in school full-time.

In response to questions about three feet social distancing, the FAQ reads: “The benefit of full time in-person education to the mental health and overall health of the child far outweighs the risk of being within three feet of space during certain times of the day.”

The question of how to reopen safely comes in the midst of a growing mental health crisis for young people during the pandemic, which many trace to the isolation and anxiety of virtual learning. But it also comes as COVID-19 cases rise significantly in the state; new daily cases are back to what was seen in early February, and New Hampshire is now in thetop tier of states with high case rates and unchecked community spread.

The state says that the majority of schools in New Hampshire are already open full time. The state’s top epidemiologist, Dr. Benjamin Chan, has stressed that with proper mitigation measures, COVID-19 transmission within schools is extremely low.

But he told NHPR this week that 3 to 6 feet of social distancing is still the recommendation. If schools have to relax distancing requirements, they should be more vigilant about safety measures like masks and hand-washing.

“If you relax restrictions in one area, look to increase protection in another area,” he says.

The state health department recommends that students and staff maintain at least three feet of social distancing as per CDC guidelines, but districts say a full school reopening will make that hard to follow, especially during lunch, when students are unmasked.

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

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