LANGDON — The Fall Mountain Regional School District, in a decision to be “proactive” amid the surging novel coronavirus pandemic and anticipated holiday travel, will switch to fully remote instruction after Thanksgiving break.
At a special meeting on Wednesday, the Fall Mountain School Board voted 6-1 to switch from their current hybrid-instructional model to district-wide remote learning from Thanksgiving until mid-January — more specifically, from Nov. 30 to Jan. 19 — to provide families and staff time after holiday gatherings to safely quarantine if needed.
Superintendent Lori Landry identified staffing as a primary concern for recommending the switch.
“We are stretched to the max,” Landry told the board. “We really feel that [while] we’ve been cautious and have a lot of safety protocols in place, at this point we need to be proactive.”
Since Nov. 9, Fall Mountain has reported four positive cases of the virus within its school communities, all individuals from either Fall Mountain Regional High School or Charlestown Middle School. Despite that, case numbers in both the district and its participating communities remain statistically low. Charlestown, with 12 active cases, has the highest active number of Fall Mountain’s five participating communities, though Charlestown’s rate of infection still constitutes a minimal level of community transition, according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
But Landry said other data trends indicate a growing stress on the district’s ability to sustain school operations.
Landry reported that student absenteeism is moving toward the range of 10-15%, which DHHS categorizes as a medium-level school impact. Many teachers and staff have also taken absences to get COVID-19 tests and the district has struggled to find substitutes. In some cases, building administrators have had to cover classes for teachers and bus drivers have had to assume additional routes.
Additionally, with more parents asking to switch their children to remote instruction due to concerns about the pandemic’s surge, Fall Mountain’s in-house remote learning program is reaching its maximum capacity, Landry said.
“It’s at the point now that I don’t know if we can continue what we’re doing, with the rise of people being sick and students being absent,” Landry said.
Fall Mountain School Board Secretary Rebecca Sethi cast the lone dissenting vote against the decision.
Sethi said she worried about the numerous students who struggled with fully remote learning during the spring and the strain on parents to balance their work responsibilities with supervision and academic support for their children.
“It’s an unfair burden to place on parents and families,” Sethi said. “Their holidays will be massively stressed because they don’t have the resources [to manage this transition.”
Sethi asked about the possibility of only moving students in the middle and high school grades to remote learning and keeping students in grades pre-K through fourth in the hybrid model. Other board members said that would not be logical because the younger students could still contract the virus from their older siblings and spread contagion to their schools.
Landry said that most teachers will still teach from their classrooms and students can expect a similar attendance schedule and instructional design as their current remote learning days. The district also plans to continue providing school meals to families in need, using a similar pick-up system as provided last spring.
The board briefly considered an alternative proposal in which the schools would only go remote for the two weeks after each break, which would have allowed a brief return to hybrid for eight school days, from Dec. 13 to Dec. 22, before the Christmas break. But board members believed the brief return would be more stressful than beneficial.
“It’s such a short transition,” said Fall Mountain School Board Chair Mary Henry. “It’s like returning to school at the beginning of the year. It takes time to get back into that form. If you shut for two weeks, open for eight days, and close again for another two or three weeks, I don’t think you’re going to be benefitting anyone.”
Fall Mountain’s period of remote instruction will span just over five weeks and include 28 school days.
More than 300 community members attended the meeting via Zoom. Because of the high turnout the board opted not to allow public comments. Henry shared a few of the questions posted on the community feed, though many of these details were still not finalized. Landry explained that she needed the board’s approval to move forward before working out the remaining logistics with school administrators.