CLAREMONT — The Claremont School District will not temporarily switch to fully remote instruction following the holiday break, barring an unforeseeable reversal of decision, after the school board denied the district’s proposal on Wednesday.
The Claremont School Board voted 4-3 to continue with full in-person instruction immediately after the holiday break, despite the district’s urging to return initially under a fully remote model. Four board members — Vice-Chair Heather Whitney, Jason Benware, Michael Petrin and Rob Lovett — supported the motion to retain the current learning model, while school board Chair Frank Sprague and board members Rebecca Zullo and Carolyn Towle voted in opposition.
The district proposed that Claremont schools would go to fully remote instruction from Monday, Jan. 4, the day of return from holiday break, until Tuesday, Jan. 19. The proposal aimed to ensure a sufficient period of quarantine after families return from holiday travel or activities to prevent a potential viral outbreak in the school buildings.
While many area school districts have employed similar post-holiday plans, including Lebanon and Fall Mountain, Claremont and Unity are the only districts so far to raise this proposal after the Thanksgiving break.
Rather than begin the switch immediately to remote, with concern to post-Thanksgiving virus spikes, the district opted to wait until the return from holiday break to allow families more time to make supervision arrangements.
Some board members criticized the plan’s underlying premise for catering to residents who fail to act responsibly during the holidays while “punishing” the students and families who follow health and safety recommendations.
“It’s kind of like saying that no one should drive on the roads because some people don’t stop for stop signs,” Benware said. “If we made rules like that we’re essentially punishing the wrong people.”
Board members who opposed the proposal pointed to the stress on working families and their employers and on children who have fared better academically and socially-emotionally since returning to the classrooms full-time.
Sprague, who supported the proposed switch, acknowledged that in-class learning is undeniably more effective and preferable to remote options. However, that effectiveness also assumes that teachers are available to implement it, which appears to be at risk due to high teacher and staff absences.
“I don’t think that [hypothetically] three classes in a cafeteria with one person supervising them has any effective instruction taking place,” Sprague said.
While Sprague admitted that he has no knowledge of such scenarios occurring, he could potentially foresee such a possibility should an unprecedented outbreak occur.
While active cases of the novel coronavirus remain relatively low in Sullivan County and the Claremont School District, Superintendent Michael Tempesta said the administration worries about overstressing the schools should the pandemic escalate following the break.
Tempesta said that staff absences “are having impacts of medium to high strain” on school operations. Prior to the Thanksgiving break the rate of staff absences were averaging between six to seven percent and have been averaging between eight to nine percent since returning from break this week.
Tempesta said he did not have the data available but estimated that the typical staff absenteeism rate probably averages “under three percent.”
Ironically, the precautionary stay-at-home policies that have enabled schools to safely reopen their buildings are also contributing to a higher rate of personnel absences. The district’s safety guidelines require any student or staff member who reports a symptom associated with the novel coronavirus to self-quarantine for at least 10 days or once receiving a negative COVID-19 test result. Even the option to test may require multiple days to receive clearance due to the high regional demand for testing, the administration said in November.
“And while they are out, our paraprofessionals, principals in some cases and support staff are filling in and in some cases teaching the class,” Tempesta told the board. “It’s not breaking the system yet but it is impacting the system.”
Compounding the problem is a lack of substitutes in the district, Tempesta added. The district only has four regular substitute teachers and only three of which have been consistently available.
“[Our substitutes] are great and we are lucky to have them,” Tempesta said. “But like we’re hearing from other districts, everyone is fighting over this. It’s not a high demand field right now, as you can imagine, and there’s just not a lot of them to go around.”
These staffing shortages so far have affected each school differently, according to school administrators.
“The variable is which of your staff members are out at a given time and how many of them,” explained Disnard Elementary School Principal Melissa Lewis. “It’s very different if you have, say, five staff members out [in which] two are classroom teachers, two are Specials teachers and one is a paraprofessional versus if you have five teachers out.”
Lewis said her school has been fortunate so far in their variables. Disnard has not needed the administrators to work in the classroom as the school has managed absences using paraprofessionals and available substitutes.
In contrast Stevens High School had eight teachers out of the building on Monday and Tuesday, including the Stevens teachers who are assigned to fully remote instruction, said Stevens Principal Pat Barry.
Barry reported that 44% of Stevens students are in the fully remote program as many families have switched to the remote model due to safety concerns. This high number of remote learners places additional strain on Stevens teaching staff and results in the remote-learners having insufficient time with their instructors.
“I’ve been in the classrooms teaching,” Barry told the board. “And it has been all hands on deck.”
In a related item Sprague is scheduling a second board meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 16, to review updated impact data, which he said should provide a clearer picture of any correlation between the Thanksgiving break and virus case increases. Sprague said the board will primarily discuss potentially switching to a hybrid or fully remote model in the second semester.
In addition to concerns about the surging pandemic in New Hampshire, Tempesta said the district will face severe capacity challenges in February when the students currently learning remotely will have the choice to switch to in-person.
“The board originally stated that for the second semester, students would have the option to re-choose their option [between remote or in-person instruction],” Tempesta said. “And the [administrative] team feels strongly at this point that option is just not viable in terms of capacity and space.”
Sprague said he did not want to wait until that Wednesday, Dec. 16, meeting to decide about the return from holiday break because it would have given families less time to prepare.
The Eagle Times attempted to contact Sprague regarding whether the board might attempt to rescind Wednesday’s decision based on new data on Wednesday, Dec. 16, but was unable to receive a response in time of publication.