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N.H. schools facing COVID fatigue and omicron anxiety brace for post-holiday surge

A photo of children crossing the street amid snowy sidewalks. A crossing guard holds up a stop sign in the middle of the street.
Sarah Gibson
Children leave school for winter break in Manchester.

With the highly-infectious omicron variant now dominating COVID infections in much of the United States, many New Hampshire schools are preparing for a spike in cases after the holidays.

But education leaders say closing schools is an absolute last resort, and that mitigation strategies like masking and testing can keep students safe during another surge.

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Though the month is not over, December has already seen the highest number of daily COVID infections in New Hampshire since the pandemic began. These numbers are driven in part by increases among children under the age of 18, who recently have made up about 30 percent of the state’s new daily reported cases.

“When one person gets sick, a lot of other people get sick,” said Dr. Holly Mintz, chief medical officer for Elliot Medical Group in Manchester. Mintz fears that while COVID symptoms among children tend to be mild, pediatric rates are contributing to a level of community transmission of the virus that has pushed hospitals to the brink.

“Even though the risk factors for severe illness haven’t seemed present in kids at this time, there are still a lot of other people in our community who will become very very sick,” Mintz said.

COVID transmission rates within schools appear minimal, particularly with layers of mitigation like requiring students with symptoms to get negative results before returning to school, and requiring masks indoors.

But high rates of community transmission shape students’ education nonetheless. In most districts, unvaccinated students living with someone who tests positive for COVID are required to stay home for 20 days. If they are vaccinated, they can attend school as they monitor for symptoms.

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

Veronica Januszewski, a nurse for the Claremont School District, said about 15 students in the city’s middle school were home this week because a member of their family had tested positive. She says household contacts are driving student absences that can last a month, depending on how many family members contract the virus. Teachers are scrambling to get materials to students at home, Januszewski says, but it’s impossible to keep everyone caught up.

Januszewski said most students are cooperating with the district’s requirements to mask indoors, and parents are keeping kids with COVID symptoms home until they get a negative test. But the constant vigilance is taking a toll.

“Everybody is tired of hearing about COVID. Everybody’s tired of dealing with COVID,” she said. “It’s just COVID fatigue.”

Remote learning last year wreaked havoc on many students’ mental health, social skills, and academic progress, and many school leaders are adamant that returning to remote learning is a last resort. So far, COVID clusters and outbreaks among students this school year have not prompted schools to close, but staffing shortages have.

“If a number of teachers, paraprofessionals, and other staff get sick or otherwise have to quarantine, a school building may not be able to operate,” said Barrett Christina, director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association.

The state Board of Education is currently working on a rule aimed at preventing schools from going remote, even temporarily. But for now, that decision is still up to individual school boards and superintendents.

Schools’ biggest defense against COVID remains vaccines and booster shots.

The vast majority of New Hampshire teachers were vaccinated last spring, but vaccination rates among younger students remains low. About 25 percent of New Hampshire children ages five to 11 have received at least one shot of the COVID vaccine, according to CDC vaccine data and population counts from the state. That’s slightly higher than the vaccine rate for that age group nationally. But it’s far below the 80 percent vaccination rate public health officials recommend before easing up on COVID mitigation measures like masks.

With vaccination rates low and omicron cases rising, most schools aren’t planning to shift their safety protocols. But that hasn’t put a stop to fights over mask mandates. This week, protesters gathered outside the Newport Middle School to support a student who refuses to wear a mask. In Haverhill, school employees are calling for the resignation of board members who recently voted to make masks optional in spite of rising COVID rates.

And in Londonderry, the school district is assembling a medical advisory team to develop a timeline for dropping mitigation measures, including its mask mandate.

“We’re unlikely to see a significant dip [in COVID case numbers] in the short interim term,” said Londonderry Superintendent Scott Laliberte. “And we felt like, almost from a morale or mental health standpoint, we need to start working on: How does this end? This isn’t sustainable. We can’t do this forever.”

The state health department says it’s crunching school COVID numbers to understand if there is a strong correlation between school mask rules and student outbreaks. But the data on the state’s COVID schools dashboard last week suggests a dramatic discrepancy with school’s real numbers.

COVID data reported to the public by districts is significantly higher than the numbers on the state's COVID schools dashboard.
Sarah Gibson for NHPR
COVID data reported to the public by districts is significantly higher than the numbers on the state's COVID schools dashboard.

In Bedford, for instance, the district’s report of active COVID cases was five times what appeared on the state dashboard. In Claremont, the district’s recorded cases were 39, but the state only showed three cases. The Manchester school district reported 255 active cases last week; the state showed fewer than 100.

The state says it is trying to clean up data it receives in large quantities from school nurses. This includes matching positive cases with lab reports also coming into the state health department. But in many cases, the state’s school dashboard continues to post inaccurate numbers weeks after districts have reported cases to their community.

Mintz, with Elliot Medical Group, said masks in schools are helpful, but many kids are getting infected outside of school in places that don’t require masks, like restaurants, stores, and social settings.

“With omicron coming, it’s considered extremely contagious. The school systems could mandate masks for their students,” she said. “It wouldn’t make this whole thing go away, but it would certainly help decrease transmission in the community.”

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