Special Ed, Meals and Language Barriers Pose Challenges for Manchester Remote Learning | New Hampshire Public Radio

Special Ed, Meals and Language Barriers Pose Challenges for Manchester Remote Learning

Mar 17, 2020


Manchester began distributing meals on Tuesday, the second day of a school closure that will last at least 3 weeks.
Credit Courtesy of Manchester School District

Manchester, the state's largest school district, is racing to get ready for remote learning as part of the statewide closure of all public schools.

Like many districts, Manchester is compiling data from surveys sent out to parents and students about their home access to Internet and computers or tablets. 

[Click here for all of our coverage, including our updated FAQs and the latest guidance about coronavirus in New Hampshire.]

Superintendent John Goldhardt says they have not achieved a 100% response rate, but have already identified some families as needing paper packets because of limited tech access. The school has not yet set up a system for lending out tablets or laptops.

With nearly 60% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, the district is prioritizing getting meals to students during the closure.

On Tuesday morning, school buses began delivering bagged meals across the city. Goldhardt says students and parents should look for communication from the district Monday about their closest drop-off spot.

Getting information to parents here is especially challenging, given the district's longstanding struggle to communicate with some of the city's immigrant and refugee population. Students in Manchester speak a total 60 languages, and around 15% are designated English Language Learners.

Much of the district's communication to parents can be translated into the top 18 languages spoken in the district, though on Monday, the translation services were unavailable through the district's notification provider.

Liz Kirwan, who teaches English Language learners at West High School, says even with translated notifications, some families will fall through the cracks.

“We have to be honest about how many families are receiving these kinds of communications, if phone numbers have changed or they don’t have access to a phone number, and we’re working at West on how to communicate with those families," she says.

Kirwan says teachers are continuing to go into the school building to prepare for remote learning, and systems are getting updated continually.

“There have definitely been difficult conversations about all the unknowns and what procedures will be," she says. "And we don’t have all the answers because it’s an emergency circumstance.”

"There have definitely been difficult conversations about all the unknowns."

  One of the many unknowns for parents across the district and state is how to make plans for students with special education needs. The Manchester School District is figuring out how to bring small groups of students with special education needs to school buildings during the emergency school closure, which the N.H. Department of Education says may be neccessary.

Superintendent Goldhardt says they are trying to find a balance between providing services in-person and reducing the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re trying to make those arrangements to do that in the safest way possible so that we don’t expose our staff or our students, and walking that fine line of what will be best for them,” he says. “We have some parents who don’t want their students to be near the building because they don’t want them to be exposed to any virus germs, and we have others who would prefer that we have full services."

Goldhardt said there were no plans to lay off hourly staff - including para-educators - despite the closure.

The district begins remote learning on March 23.