As coronavirus cases surge, a growing number of school districts in New Hampshire are closing their doors and offering mostly virtual instruction instead of in-person classes. But Gov. Chris Sununu and state health officials are urging schools to stay open, saying virus transmission in schools is limited and the payoff of in-person learning is high.
NHPR’s education reporter Sara Gibson has been following this and spoke with All Things Considered host Emily Quirk.
Emily Quirk: There was a lot of anxiety this summer that as schools reopened, coronavirus cases would skyrocket. So what have we seen so far in New Hampshire?
Sarah Gibson: Well, we have seen cases of staff and students who test positive for the coronavirus in New Hampshire schools. But we're not seeing transmission within schools. So far, it seems like, with proper safety precautions like mask wearing, social distancing, and more cleaning, schools are not driving community-wide COVID transmission and they're relatively safe. I spoke to Dr. Steven Chapman about this. He's a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, and he's been advising school districts on how to reopen safely. He says when there's been an exposure in local schools to someone with COVID, they basically tested a ton of students and staff. And here's what he's observed.
Dr. Steven Chapman: “We've tested hundreds of those [close contacts] just in this local area and they've all been negative. And what that means is that kids are doing a great job. Teachers are doing a great job. And administrators are doing a great job that the public health measures, when applied in a school setting, are remarkably effective.”
Gibson: The data nationwide and across the world is still a little bit spotty, but generally we're seeing those same trends - that with precautions, schools are quite safe. And in fact, there's growing consensus that there's a big cost to keeping students remote, both psychological as well as educational.
Quirk: So it sounds like, for the most part, schools can be relatively safe. But a lot of districts. like Manchester, Rochester and Keene. that had been open are now going remote. So what's going on?
Gibson: So a few things are going on. The biggest is obviously that there's a coronavirus surge here in New Hampshire. But to better understand how we got here with schools, it's helpful to rewind a little bit to the beginning of the semester. So the state issued guidance to districts for how to reopen safely and when they should think about closing. Districts kind of tinkered with this and created their own metrics for when to move to a remote model should a coronavirus surge come. And we're there right now.
So, for instance, in Manchester, transmission levels within the school, there are really low transmission levels. In the community at large, they are quite high. And so as a result, the district has gone largely remote. The other thing going on here is that as we see more cases in the community, that will be to some extent reflected in the school. So say a bunch of teachers get exposed to the coronavirus, not even in school, but at a church gathering or a family event or community event. They have to quarantine. That means they can't be in school. That means that districts are kind of racing around trying to find a bunch of substitute teachers that as of now don't exist in New Hampshire. So even if schools are safe to be in, if a bunch of people have to be home learning or teaching remotely, you just can't really operate a school at that point if COVID transmission in the community is really high.
Quirk: So given the likelihood that cases will continue to rise, how should school districts be making sense of the risks and benefits of staying open?
Gibson: Well, Gov. Sununu has been really clear. Even just last week, he was saying there is no data to suggest that people are getting the coronavirus at school, that we need to keep them open when possible. Dr. Benjamin Chan, who's the state epidemiologist, has actually modified that official guidance that the state provided to schools earlier this semester, saying, given what we know so far about school transmission, we really urge you to stay open even if your community transmission level is really high.
The caveat, of course, is that the decision of whether to reopen or whether to go remote is up to district leaders and the school boards, not to the state. So the thing that is kind of emerging now is this question of: Do we stick to guidelines that were created in the early fall or do we update them, given what we're learning about schools being relatively safe places with very low transmission levels of the virus? I spoke to Dr. Emily Oster. She is an economist at Brown University who's been writing a lot about this. And here's what she said.
Dr. Emily Oster: “I think we need to say, let's draw some guidelines about what we would see and when. So if we start seeing transmission in schools, if we start seeing rates in schools that exceed the community rates, if we start seeing evidence that, you know, schools themselves are driving the community, those are the kinds of things I would like to be paying attention to.”
Gibson: And that's in line with what we're hearing from the medical community to some extent: that we really need to keep schools open when possible, keep them open maybe instead of businesses and restaurants. So it'll be interesting to see whether or not that's even possible given the staff shortages that I was mentioning and the absence of substitute teachers to cover for a growing number of staff who are going to need to quarantine as we see more community transmission across New Hampshire.