As states across the country announce school closures in response to COVID-19, an increasing number of districts in New Hampshire are following suit, as they assess their ability to offer remote learning in the event of long-term shutdowns.
Friday saw several large school districts announce closures, including the Nashua School District, Timberlane Regional School District, and Pinkerton Academy in Derry. In Exeter, SAU 16 announced that it was closing school for two weeks, but did not specify plans yet for remote learning.
On Thursday, the State Board of Education approved an emergency rule that allows district officials to opt for remote learning without waiting for state approval and struck a clause that required 80 percent of student participation for a remote school day to count as a school day.
“School districts clearly needed more flexibility to respond to the spread of a contagion like the coronavirus,” said Andrew Cline, chairman of the state Board of Education. “The rules on the books did not anticipate a situation like the one superintendents are dealing with now.”
The emergency rule is in effect for 180 days.
On Friday afternoon, state Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut wrote to school districts:
“The determination to disrupt your educational system is of course a difficult one and we all play a role. Public health may order such an action. If I felt it was necessary statewide, I would act. More likely, however, it will be a community by community determination. We may not want to close schools in Berlin, but may close schools in towns bordering [Massachusetts], as an example.”
In preparation, some districts are sending out surveys to parents about their access to home internet and technology and need for continued meal services during a school closure. Teachers are meeting to assess their ability to use online platforms for remote instruction.
At the Hollis Montessori School, Head of School Kari Headington is using a “Learning from Home” handbook designed by The Montessori School of Tokyo, Japan, where nearly all schools have been closed since early March.
As with many remote learning plans for elementary school students, the booklet assumes adult supervision at home, a scenario more likely if the majority of offices and businesses ask employees to work from home.
In Amherst and Mont Vernon, schools will close on Monday to give teachers time to plan for possible long-term closure. SAU 39 superintendent Adam Steel says they’re still in the process of figuring out how the district would maintain relationships virtually, particularly for elementary school students.
“The thing that makes our school successful is relationships with teachers,” Steel said. “Whatever we do, we’re going to have to ensure that there is actual connection between teachers and students. If that means the whole class is logging in at the same time of day at the same time during the day, that’s a great way to do that. Or if it’s small groups throughout the day, that might be more effective.”
For the state’s approximately 32,000 students with designated special education needs, remote learning poses additional challenges. SAU 39 is considering keeping a portion of a school building open for students with intense special needs. But most special education students in the state would likely have to connect with para-educators and teachers virtually.
“There are some children who really need hands-on support. It’s hard for a child for example to get physical therapy through remote learning,” said Bonnie Donham, of the New Hampshire Parent Information Center, which works with parents of special needs children. “I think parents are aware that this is truly a unique situation. It’s a crisis that means the ideal is not going to happen.”
Donham said in some cases, districts may have to figure out how to deliver paper or Braille versions of assignments to students at home, depending on their access to internet and needs outlined by special education plans known as IEPs.
The U.S. Department of Education explained in a recent FAQ that even during remote learning, schools are required to provide special education and related services to students with IEPs. If certain services are not available to students during remote learning, the district may provide them during the summer or when school buildings reopen.
Click here for more resources on remote instruction for schools and parents from the New Hampshire Department of Education.
Original post from Wednesday, March 11 follows below:
This week New Hampshire saw a few schools close over concerns about the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The state's health and education departments are issuing guidance daily to school administrators as they make these decisions, but many questions remain about how careful schools and parents should be.
All Things Considered host Peter Biello spoke with NHPR’s education reporter Sarah Gibson about how schools have been reacting to the virus.
Editor’s note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
How many schools have closed and what were the reasons for closing?
Three schools have closed and they have not closed because of any kind of outbreak. They're closing because of what superintendents are calling "an overabundance of caution."
We first had Newmarket on Monday, which closed because the district learned that a staff member was self-quarantining after having been on the bus with someone who did test positive for COVID-19. They're open again.
Hollis-Brookline School District learned that a staff member was being tested, then learned the next day that the test was negative. So they spent that day of school cancellation doing a big clean of the school and then are back in session.
There there were really some ripple effects just because, you know, we're in school basketball season and lots of athletes are going from place to place. So once parents in other towns learned that Hollis-Brookline was closed because of something related to the coronavirus, of course, you know, parents from across the state whose kids maybe had been there in the last couple weeks for athletic events, were calling wondering, should I also be concerned?
Then we also had Epping, which served actually as the polling place yesterday. And it turned out that after a voter cast his ballot, he told people he was about to go self-quarantine because of some symptoms. So out of precaution, the middle and high schools were closed. It turned out that that voter, in fact, tested for flu. So they're no longer concerned about coronavirus and they're going to be back in session tomorrow.
We're also seeing a lot of event cancellations more than we would normally would. Sports events... Hanover was going to host the New England Music Festival, which has students from all over the region coming in to play in orchestra and sing in chorus together. That was gonna happen next week. It's been canceled. So we're going to probably continue seeing things like that.
And what is the procedure for making the decision to close schools?
That's a great question. So basically, if there are any concerns that emerge, the superintendent gets guidance from both the Department of Education and the state health department. And they're in constant touch at this point.
So unless something major changes like there's a state of emergency or health departments are taking action, it's really up to the school boards and the superintendents to make the final decision on whether to close. But that's in close conversation with the state health department as well as the DOE.
And for schools that aren't closing, what are they doing to stop the potential spread of the virus?
They're doing the typical germ control, but sometimes ramping that up. So, you know, lots of posters around showing people how to wash their hands properly. Cleaning services are coming in. And there's also a real push to stay home if you're sick and to wait for 24 hours after those symptoms have passed before sending that kid back to school.
But there's also these longer term plans that need to be put into place. So districts are all talking about what do we do if for some reason we need to do remote learning, we need to close the school building and do the same kind of thing we're seeing colleges do, which is basically ask students to learn from home for the rest of the semester.
And then the other big thing that's coming up with schools in terms of their conversations with state agencies and amongst each other, is this question of trips. There are, it looks like, more than 200 trips, internationally and domestically, that are planned for the rest of the semester. DOE is keeping account of that and really trying to offer guidance to schools. And there's this question of whether or not a bunch of these school trips, which, you know, students have fundraised for for months now, will be canceled because of concerns about an outbreak.
So how likely is it that any given school will close?
Well, we really don't know at this point, Peter. But it definitely does seem that because superintendents and school boards want to be really cautious and because this is a new virus that's pretty scary and not totally understood, there is a good chance that at some point your school may ask your students to learn from home or your students to not come in that day. We don't know how widespread it's going to be yet, but it really is true that agencies and school districts are preparing for really all levels of of an outbreak and are wanting to be prepared for the worst. So, you know, we don't totally know what it's gonna look like a week from now or a month from now.