All New Hampshire public schools will be closed for three weeks, the most sweeping response yet by state officials to the spread of coronavirus. The order by Gov. Chris Sununu comes as the number of identified cases of COVID-19 in New Hampshire nearly doubled in the course of one day, from seven to 13.
“The COVID-19 outbreak in New Hampshire has rapidly evolved over the past 48 hours,” Sununu said at a Concord press conference Sunday. “We are taking action based on the fact that we have increasing numbers in the state, and they are likely to further increase.”
Of the 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Hampshire, three live in Grafton County, one in Nashua, and the rest in Rockingham County. State epidemiologist Ben Chan said all the cases in the state have been traced to recent travel or close direct contact with someone with a diagnosis of COVID-19, but that could change.
“There may be additional COVID-19 cases in the coming days where there is not a clear identified risk factor, and there may be evidence of community transmission,” said Chan.
According to an update Sunday morning, 95 people in New Hampshire have COVID-19 test results pending, and approximately 450 people are being monitored.
Chan stressed that the best way to slow the spread of the virus is for people who are feeling even slightly unwell to stay home.
“I think we need to change our social expectations and make it OK for people to stay home when they are sick or symptomatic,” Chan said.
Schools will close until at least April 3rd
In the first of what he suggested would be a series of new executive actions, Sununu directed all K-12 public schools in the state to transition to remote education and support for three weeks, beginning Monday.
“While students will not be in schools,” Sununu said, “they will be learning.”
Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut said some school districts are prepared to offer remote instruction using digital technology. He described other districts capacities as “fully analog.” All schools are expected to have education plans ready by week’s end.
“Remote instruction, plus remote support, results in remote learning for our students,” Edelblut told reporters.
Students who participate in school breakfast and lunch programs will receive meals, though Edelblut did not outline exactly how that would be assured from district to district. Edelblut said the state is also committed to meeting the needs of students with Individual Education Plans, though that, too, needs to be fully worked out, he said.
“That may mean that the service that is called out in their plan can be provided in a remote instructional environment, and we will continue to provide it that way. It may mean that some of those services need to be done in person,” Edelblut said.
Edelblut added that districts could provide instruction for small groups of students at closed schools. He said education officials will work directly with students if their individual education plans cannot be conducted remotely.
In announcing the statewide school closure, Sununu said he’ll act this week to expand unemployment benefits, including to the self-employed, to assist parents whose work routines are disrupted by having to care for their children during the school week.
He expects federal money to ultimately offset costs borne by New Hampshire’s Unemployment Trust Fund.
Sununu's order does not cover the state's day care centers, though he said anticipates many day care centers will choose to remain open during the COVID-19 epidemic. He said the state is open to increasing day care capacity by relaxing licensing requirements, including allowing employers to set up centers in-house.
“We’ve actually heard from hospitals who have said, ‘Hey can we set up a childcare or daycare center within our facility, temporarily,' so again, those workers can be at work, and that’s exactly the type of flexibility that we are going to give them,” Sununu said.
Public gatherings and grocery shelves
In ordering the sweeping school closures, Sununu declined to call for further restrictions on public activities. For instance, Sununu said he sees no need to institute a ban on public gathering, as some other states have done, because many organizations are cancelling events on their own.
“They are making good decisions based on their constituencies and on the risk factors to the individual events, and if anything that’s a credit to the state of New Hampshire that we are not in a position where we would require a government mandate,” Sununu said.
Sununu said he also doesn’t anticipate taking state action to ensure people in New Hampshire have basic supplies. Sununu said he noticed some bare shelves during a recent visit to a supermarket, but said he’s been assured there’s no disruption to the supply chain.
“Of course, the state stands ready to do whatever we have to do, but we're nowhere near that level right now.” he said. “It's very serious. It is an emergency. But that’s all the more reason we have to take that collective calm, take a breath.”