CLAREMONT — The Claremont School District plans to reopen schools in September under a hybrid instructional model after a school board motion to allow students to fully return to classroom learning in Claremont was narrowly defeated Wednesday night by a vote of 4 to 3.
The hybrid instructional model will allow students to attend school in classrooms two days per week and learn remotely three days per week. Students across grades K-12 will be split into small cohorts, with some cohorts attending school on Mondays and Thursdays and the other cohorts attending school on Tuesdays and Fridays. All students would learn remotely on Wednesdays, which the district will use for additional building cleaning and teacher preparation.
Superintendent Michael Tempesta said the hybrid instructional model will allow the district to transition back to full-classroom learning while following the safety recommendations by the federal Center of Disease Control (CDC) to mitigate risk of spreading the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
Tempesta said the district would review data and heath recommendations in October to determine the safety to begin transitioning to full-classroom attendance.
But several board members questioned the rationale behind the hybrid plan, which could put greater hardship onto students and their families by keeping children at home.
“We are putting our highest-risk kids at risk and putting a boot on the neck of their families,” said Claremont School Board Vice Chair Heather Whitney.
The hybrid instructional model is theoretically designed to reduce the risk of viral infection by reducing the number of students in the classrooms at one time, thereby allowing for more distance between each student.
But Whitney questioned the model’s actual cost-benefit. Having children at home three days per week not only will make it more difficult for many parents to work, but many students have likely regressed academically since New Hampshire schools went to remote instruction in March. The separation from schools has also been taxing on the city’s at-risk students, who have relied on school for safety, security and essential services.
“I’m concerned the education piece is getting lost in this plan,” Whitney said. “The safety piece is important, but we are ignoring the education piece.”
Equally troubling to Whitney was the district’s lack of metrics to define when conditions would be safe to fully reopen.
Claremont and its surrounding region has remained relatively spared by the novel coronavirus. Claremont has only had 15 total cases to date and Sullivan County only 40 total cases. Presently Claremont has less than four active cases of the virus, which amounts to infection rate of about .03%.
“If we aren’t okay [to fully open] at a zero infection rate, then what are we going to say is okay?” Whitney asked the superintendent. “At present we have zero infections in our community but [you’re saying] that’s not good enough.”
Tempesta said the district based its decision for a hybrid instructional model on questions about having adequate staffing and capacity for a full-return. On Thursday the district plans to begin conversations with teachers and staff to determine how many teachers may not return to school due to health concerns. Some teachers may work remotely with students who choose to stay fully remote. Some teachers eligible for retirement may opt to retire rather than return.
Tempesta said he was also concerned about having enough bus drivers to meet student needs. With CDC guidelines requiring busses to significantly reduce their capacity of riders, Tempesta said the district’s plan will barely be able to accommodate the student needs under the hybrid instructional model.
Stevens High School Principal Pat Barry said that capacity-problems and logistics ultimately drove the choice for a hybrid instructional model over an option for full in-school instruction.
“We can open at 100% capacity but we cannot meet the CDC guidelines [in doing so],” Barry told the board. “There is no way we can maintain the social distance and follow what we are told by the CDC or the governor. Even if we have three foot spacing, we can’t put all of our children back into the classrooms.”
Board member Jason Benware, who supported a choice to fully return in-school, said the district’s rationale was based on incorrect assumptions that all students would choose for in-school learning over learning fully remotely.
Studies of New Hampshire schools offering students a choice between in-school or remote instruction shows that 30% of students on average say they plan on learning remotely.
Board member Michael Petrin joined Benware and Whitney in voting for letting families choose between full in-school instruction or remote learning.
Board Chair Frank Sprague and board members Rob Lovett, Carolyn Towle and Rebecca Zullo voted against the motion.
Zullo said she supported giving families and students a choice but not at the expense of Claremont’s teachers and staff.
“As a human, I have trouble putting them in that position,” Zullo said. “Yes, some employees are in that position. But there are also employers who allow their employees to stay home.”
Lovett said he could not see how the district could feasibly figure out the logistics to make a full return to school possible at this junction.
“There’s a lot of moving pieces there to figure out,” Lovett said. “And there’s a lot of moving pieces already.”
The board voted 5 to 2 to allow the superintendent to proceed with his current plan, on the provision the district creates measurable parameters to guide the district’s decision regarding a full reopening of schools.
Benware and Petrin voted against the motion.