Debates around mask wearing and COVID restrictions continue to dominate school board meetings in Nashua
School board meetings are at the center of divisions within communities over COVID-19 policies across the country, and here in New Hampshire. School boards are balancing public health guidance with a backlash against COVID rules from parents and other groups.
Heather Raymond was just reelected to the Nashua Board of Education. NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley talked with her about how she and other board members are navigating these challenges. Below is a transcript of the conversation.
Rick Ganley: So Heather, several national school board meetings, I know, have been interrupted by protests this past year. I wonder how much of your school board race this fall centered on issues related to COVID like masks.
Heather Raymond: I do think that that was the number one issue that people were concerned about in this race, which is very different than when I ran four years ago.
Rick Ganley: The main focus was COVID and masking in schools?
Heather Raymond: I do think so. I think that this year, the main focus of most voters was on COVID. And here in Nashua, we require masks in our schools, and I think that that was the hot topic of the election.
Rick Ganley: Now when you say hot topic, what were meetings like? What were people saying to you?
Heather Raymond: Starting all the way back in May, we started to have outbursts and disruptions in our meetings. Over the summer, we had big protests outside the meetings with a number of special interest groups, I'm going to call them, outside. We had Black Lives Matter. We had some faith groups outside. We had some neo-Nazis, actually, come. NSC-131 came up from Massachusetts. And then we had a group of Proud Boys that were out there. That has died down. By the time school started, we weren't seeing the protests outside as much. But we were still seeing people, and mostly parents I think, who were not waiting for the public comment period to share their thoughts. And some of them were really interrupting the meetings, making it impossible for us to get our work done.
Rick Ganley: Now, I know the last time we talked back in January, that a parent group in your city was frustrated with the school board's decision to remain remote for most of the year. The group was looking to remove multiple members of the board over this. Now that students have been back in the classroom, what's the board doing to help students catch up after a year and a half of all the disruption?
Heather Raymond: That's an excellent question. So we have a bunch of different processes in effect right now. First of all, we have a large focus on social and emotional learning. There are a small group of kids, I would say, who behaviorally are having a really hard time with the transition back into the classroom. And we have a large group of students who are suffering with depression or anxiety that didn't before COVID.
So we've done a couple of things. We are helping our teachers to identify students and provide extra supports. And then we've also partnered with Mount Prospect, who provides mental health counseling. So we have counselors now in the school for students or families who want their students to speak with someone about the transition or about their feelings.
Rick Ganley: So what's been parents’ reaction to that? Are parents generally happy with that response or are they demanding more? Or is the talk still much more about the fundamentals of mask mandates and such?
Heather Raymond: Yeah, I would love it if our conversations at the board were about these programs, and whether or not they're working and how we're doing with that. But I'm still finding that most of the public comments at our meetings are people upset with the masking requirements.
Rick Ganley: Do you feel safe at school board meetings?
Heather Raymond: I do. We have a wonderful relationship with the Nashua police force. They are a nationally accredited police force and they're a model, I think, for New Hampshire and really moving across New England. So what our police chief has done is he's made sure that we've had at least one officer in the room and another one outside the room, so that if we needed to have somebody removed or if we had a safety issue, they would be right there to respond. Fortunately, we've only gotten close to that once and we haven't had anybody removed or arrested at our meeting.
Rick Ganley: I know the New Hampshire School Boards Association is cutting ties with its national association after a controversy over the role of federal law enforcement in school board meetings. Now, the national association has asked the Biden administration to intervene to protect members who are receiving threats from parents over issues like mask wearing. The New Hampshire School Board Association is one of the handful that has withdrawn membership in the past few weeks over this, and I'm wondering if you agree with that.
Heather Raymond: I'm neutral about that decision. Here in Nashua, we've had a good relationship with the FBI. We have one member who has received very specific threats, and she's been working closely with the police and the FBI on that. And we had FBI agents in our meetings back when we had hate groups coming. And so we felt very safe and like that was a very cooperative relationship.
Rick Ganley: Vaccines are becoming available now to school age children. At what point does that change the school board's approach to COVID safety measures like mask mandates?
Heather Raymond: It's really interesting. We've been having these conversations like one-on-one between members, and there is not consensus yet on our board on what to do. We are offering, in Nashua, a vaccine clinic on Nov. 20. Anybody can go and sign up. People can just come, and I think we've had a really good response to it. Having said that, for the 12 to 18-year-olds that are in school now, only about 40 percent of them have gotten the vaccine. I don't know if the board will consider that sufficient for making masks optional.
Rick Ganley: So when it comes to COVID safety, do you feel like you have adequate support from the state when there's been so much pushback from certain groups and parents?
Heather Raymond: I don't, no. I think the state has been slow to respond this year to COVID. I definitely think that there is a disconnect between what the state epidemiologist, Dr. [Benjamin] Chan, is saying and the information that we're getting from the governor and the commissioner of Education. So with that disconnect, the decisions are really falling on local school boards to make these calls for their districts.