CLAREMONT — SAU 6 Superintendent Michael Tempesta forewarned the Claremont and Unity school boards about plans to discuss switching to partially or fully remote instruction in the future amid an increasing impact from the surging novel coronavirus pandemic on school staffing.
Tempesta briefed the two boards at their scheduled SAU meeting on Thursday. The SAU board can only take action on mutually-shared items like the supervisory budget or superintendent position, so any decision to change learning models will occur at each district’s next board meeting.
While the active case rates in Claremont and Unity remain statistically low, Tempesta said the schools are already seeing a strain to their ability to operate. The student absenteeism rate is starting to enter the 15% mark, which constitutes a “medium” level impact on schools, according to criteria set by the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
Many of these student, staff or faculty absences are attributable to the school policies that require anyone experiencing a virus-like symptom — be it a fever, sore throat or headache — to remain out of school for either 10 days or until receiving a negative-result from a COVID-19 test.
Tempesta said that these safety precautions, while contributing so far to the safety within the schools, are also increasing the rate of teacher absences.
“We’ve seen close to a 50 or 60% increase in staff being out,” Tempesta said.
Teachers might be out for COVID testing or to take care of their children if out of school due to illness-related concerns, according to the superintendent.
The lack of substitute teachers is adding additional stress. Tempesta said that building administrators have sometimes had to teach classes for their teachers when a substitute was unavailable.
Claremont School Board Chair Frank Sprague said that he is currently more worried about the capability of schools to educate than the risk of student infection, which are arguably a safer place for children than in many parts of the community.
“I’m not as concerned [right now] with the kids transmitting it,” Sprague said. “But I am very concerned with our ability to teach the courses. And it raises the philosophical question for us to consider: what is the role of school? Is it to teach or is it custodial?”
Claremont School Board member Jason Benware argued that the education for many students actually suffers when deprived of in-person instruction.
“A portion of kids who are in school are getting more education than they are at home, because the fact is that when they are at home they aren’t getting much of anything,” Benware said.
Benware, along with Claremont School Board Vice-Chair Heather Whitney and board member Michael Petrin, have arguably been the strongest advocates this year for fully in-person instructional opportunities. This is arguably a primary distinction from a similar discussion in Fall Mountain on Wednesday, when the Fall Mountain School Board voted 6-1 to move from their current hybrid-instructional model to fully remote instruction immediately after the Thanksgiving break, from Nov. 30 through Jan. 19.
Like Tempesta, Fall Mountain Regional School District Superintendent Lori Landry said their schools were being stressed by high teacher and staff absences and a lack of substitutes.
Unlike the Fall Mountain School Board, the Claremont Board was strongly split in August over the district’s decision to start the school year under a hybrid model, with three members unsuccessfully bidding to begin the year fully in-person. In September, the Claremont School Board approved a plan, by a vote of 6-1, to resume fully in-person instruction on Oct. 19 for elementary and middle school students and on Nov. 10 for the high school.
Whitney asked if the district had considered a way to expedite testing for Claremont’s teachers to reduce their length of classroom absences.
Asst. Superintendent Donna Magoon said the district had inquired to Valley Regional Hospital, but the hospital refused due to the high demand for testing and limited testing capacity.
“They’re having a hard time with their own staff,” Magoon said. “They only have 30 testing slots per day. They are looking to get six more but they can’t let our staff go above anybody else.”
Whitney suggested the possibility of using rapid testing, which is available at Keady Family Practice in Claremont.
Rapid testing can analyze a testing sample on site and produce a result within minutes.
Whitney acknowledged that a rapid test has a hefty cost of $200 but suggested there may be a willingness in the community to pay that price to keep students in the classroom.
Claremont’s next board meeting will be held on Wednesday, Dec. 2. Unity’s next board meeting will be on Tuesday, Dec. 8.