NEWPORT — The Newport School Board held a proactive but challenging meeting with school administrators and educators Tuesday night to discuss components of a future school reopening plan without having state guidelines for how to prepare.
Districts across New Hampshire, including Newport, face an arduous task this summer when it comes to preparing for the 2020-2021 school year amid the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic. The New Hampshire Department of Education is expected to release guidelines for the reopening of schools, though the committee tasked to submit those recommendations to the education commissioner only completed their work a week ago.
Newport School Board Chair Linda Wadensten said that while the conversation was arguably premature for many planning purposes, its intent was to begin the discussion with the educational team and gather perspectives and insight in advance.
“We’re not making decisions today,” Wadensten said. “But we have to plan for the worst and hope for the best. We can always scale back.”
In an interview with WMUR-TV on Sunday, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said that he expects schools “to be open for in-person instruction in September,” though local schools should also prepare to accommodate students who elect to continue learning remotely due to health concerns. Additionally, Edelblut indicated without detailing specifics that the state intends to give local districts a broad set of guidelines and options to allow districts to develop their own reopening plans.
Yet without knowing those guidelines, school districts are left mostly in limbo, said Newport educators.
“It’s not just the shifting guidelines but how to apply those to our [district’s] situation, number and resources,” said Newport High School principal Shannon Martin. “The state doesn’t make guidelines specific to Newport.”
Many New Hampshire educators anticipate the state to model its reopening guidelines on recommendations proposed by the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). Some of the CDC’s restrictions appear particularly daunting, such as requirements for students to wear masks and classroom seating to provide a minimal distance of six feet between each student.
But even a potential mask policy is difficult to discuss at this junction, since the state of New Hampshire does not have a mandatory face mask policy, Superintendent Brendan Minnihan pointed out.
To illustrate how complicated the school planning for fall is at this juncture, the Newport team discussed the likelihood for screening students and staff. Curriculum Director Patrice Glancey said that students attending the extended summer program have their temperature taken each morning before entering the classroom.
On an encouraging note, it takes only 10 minutes for two staff members to take temperatures of 25 students. But school administrators said they feel less confident that the summer model will translate successfully to the regular school year.
“Getting 500 kids tested on a daily basis is going to be a challenge,” said Newport Middle School principal Ronning Thomas.”Having long lines to get temperatures taken will be self-defeating.”
Richards Elementary School teacher Lisa Ferrigno also noted that a district screening policy will need to consider details such as who will conduct the screenings, training that staff and deciding whether the screeners will have the authority to decide whether a student can safely stay at school.
Notably, Sullivan County, where Newport is located, has had only 35 confirmed cases of the coronavirus to date, making it the second lowest rate of infection in the state next to Coos County.
Newport School Board Vice-Chair Rhonda Callum-King said that the town’s low infection rate, assuming it holds into the fall, should factor into the district’s plan given the district’s limited financial resources.
“In order to get grants we need to follow what the governor says,” Callum-King said. “It’s basically that simple. Do what the governor and [state] Board of Education say. All we can do is think about which ways we can go.”
Callum-King said the priority is for the board and school teams to be on the same page in creating and implementing a plan.
“We all have the same endpoint,” Wadensten said. “We all want the kids to be educated to the best of their ability and we all want children and educators to be safe. We just need to figure out how to get there.”