Many school districts in New Hampshire are open, at least for now, with a hybrid or fully in-person model. But in Nashua, schools have remained mostly closed since March.
The district is currently debating how to reopen safely, and the situation is only getting more tense as infection numbers climb in the city and across New Hampshire.
For Nashua senior Joshua Gao, the pandemic hasn’t been all bad.
Head to his yard and you start to see why. Next to a newly built greenhouse chirp a flock of fluffy chicks. Joshua and his grandparents, who live with him, are building a chicken coop nearby. Joshua says remote learning has given him more time for family projects like this.
“Even just in between classes maybe I’ll pop out here with my grandparents. We’ll feed the chickens some lettuce, which they love,” he says.
If Nashua schools were to open, Joshua would opt to stay remote, largely to protect his grandparents, whose age makes them high-risk for COVID-19.
But Joshua says he’s in the minority. As a student rep to Nashua’s school board, he talks a lot with his classmates. Many tell him they’re struggling at home, growing depressed and disengaged.
In some of his Zoom classes, most students just keep their cameras off.
“You have no idea what they’re doing. A lot of times the teacher might call out and say ‘Hey can you answer this question? Can you add your input on this?’” he says. “But you just get no response from the people whose cameras aren’t on.”
Remote learning doesn’t work for a lot of kids, but the coronavirus is no joke in Nashua. It’s hit this city harder than other parts of New Hampshire, particularly in its communities of color.
But many families here are pushing to get kids back in the classroom. They say other cities - including Manchester - have found a way to reopen safely. So why not Nashua?
“All 11,000 children in this district have a right to an equal education and we are failing them,” Alicia Houston, a parent in Nashua, told me. “And we can do better.”
Houston is part of a new group called Nashua Parent Voice, with about a thousand members, that’s advocating to reopen schools. The group has sent formal appeals to the Nashua school board and New Hampshire Department of Education.
The group's Facebook group is strictly moderated - they say no teacher-bashing or politics are allowed. But Houston says they’re getting exasperated that eight months into the pandemic, Nashua Board of Education hasn’t yet finalized a reopening plan.
“It’s been plans of plans of plans, with the idea to create a plan with the data for the plan of the plan that we were planning to plan,” she says.
One of the plans the district decided against was to open with a hybrid model in October. But about an eighth of Nashua’s teachers need to be fully remote for health reasons, and the district says there isn’t enough staff yet for in-person learning.
So for now, only first graders, students with significant special education needs, and career and tech students are in school a few days a week.
Jon Michael-Person, a middle school teacher and member of Nashua Parent Voice, says the district should accomodate people with health concerns, but its decision to stay largely remote is hitting low-income students hard.
He says in some of the classes he teaches, half the students aren’t showing up.
“Basically, remote learning is privileged. It’s easier for people - not easy, but easier - if you have a 3,000 square foot house and 4 rooms and 4 computers,” he says. “And that’s not what Nashua is.”
In Nashua, 43 percent of students are on free and reduced lunch and 12 percent are learning English as a second language.
The Nashua school district, in partnership with local organizations, has tried to bridge some of these gaps. It distributed thousands of Chromebooks to students and organized curbside pick-up for schools meals.
But in its reopening debate, Nashua is facing one of the major paradoxes of pandemic education: In some cases, the very students who would benefit the most from in-person learning are also in families that are the most vulnerable to COVID-19.
Some of these families have underlying health conditions, limited access to health care, and live in multigenerational households with vulnerable grandparents.
And some of them say they want to stay remote.
Bobbie Bagley runs the Nashua Public Health Department. She says the racial and economic disparities of the pandemic, the challenges of remote learning, and the risks of in-person learning are top of mind when she advises the school district.
“It’s a wicked wicked problem that requires a lot of real hard thinking and decision-making and weighing the risk versus the benefit,” she says.
Bagley’s office is monitoring the number of new coronavirus cases in city residents under the age of 19. In October, those cases totaled 62, twice what she saw in September.
“Right now we’re having tremendous community spread, and they’re not even in school yet,” she says.
State health officials say that so far, reopening schools in other parts of New Hampshire - with masks, social distancing, and other safety protocols - does not appear to be driving the increase in coronavirus transmission. An exception to this is school sports teams, which Nashua has continued in spite of being remote.
Nashua’s superintendent Dr. Jahmal Mosley - who’s been criticized for keeping schools remote and not developing clear metrics for reopening - declined an interview with NHPR.
On Monday, he will advise the school board on whether to get more students back into the building before the end of the year, or in January.
Board chairwoman Heather Raymond says they’ll likely discuss the rising COVID transmission levels across the state.
“We weigh heavily what the governor said on Friday about his expectation for new cases rising dramatically. We also weigh heavily looking at what other districts have done, and a number of them are closing,” she said.
Some schools that reopened are now closing due to COVID cases or in preparation for the holidays. And members of Nashua Parent Voice say they’re not optimistic.
It seems Superintendent Mosley isn’t either. Last week, he wrote a letter to families, saying he couldn’t reach consensus with the board about how to reopen safely.
He explained that “the intersection of governance, race, safety, and reopening has resulted in a situation that can no longer be managed.”
He wrote that he is seeking a job elsewhere.