LITTLETON — For North Country schools, the post-pandemic world hasn’t arrived just yet.
In terms of current active COVID-19 case numbers, the region is looking healthy, but one school district is preparing for the worst and hoping for the best as it factors into its draft school-reopening plan new federal guidelines regarding schools and prepares that draft for public input.
One issue that drew strong comments by one parent and one school board member during the Littleton School Board’s meeting on July 12 is if students will again be required to wear masks when the school year begins in a little more than a month.
The Littleton School District SAU 84 has six months to re-update its reopening plan, which it must submit to the state, to reflect current conditions, said SAU 84 Superintendent William Hart.
On July 9, the U.S. Center for Disease Control issued new guidelines for schools, and SAU 84 school nurses and the administrative team will be reviewing them, he said.
“Things changed more than I expected them to in the report,” he said.
With the new federal guidelines, the district will begin to modify its reopening plan and will be issuing a survey to all stakeholders that shows them the current plan, gives them questions for each section of the plan, and asks if they are satisfied with the plan, and if not, what are their recommendations, said Hart.
By Monday, July 26, the draft plan is expected to be ready for public viewing, followed by a public input session at the board’s regularly scheduled meeting for Aug. 9.
“By mid-August, we will finalize our plan,” said Hart.
School Board Member Larry Blaisdell said it’s a good direction to move.
“Realistically, we have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” he said. “Things look great right now, and, anecdotally, summer school is going very well to date … We just hope that we don’t have to go through this all over again. We’ve learned some lessons and have to be prepared for it, either for a major resurgence or whatever. I think we know a hell of a lot more than we did a year ago.”
He summed up the CDC guidelines.
“They’re essentially saying the most important thing is to get kids back into school face-to-face,” said Hart. “The CDC has fully embraced that as a concept. It’s through that lens they’re giving their guidelines … The second piece is we should try to keep our kids three feet apart. If it’s impossible to do, then you could be looking at masking.”
The CDC is now giving far more flexibility to schools in terms of local control, and a community that has very low numbers can have a much stronger role in setting policies than it had in the past, said Hart.
“The other thing is they are really advocating getting vaccinated,” he said. “It’s a huge support factor to have [for students, teachers, parents, staff] … The more you get vaccinated the less you would have to take mitigating strategies.”
As of Monday, the town of Littleton had zero active confirmed cases.
(Neighboring towns were also reporting zero cases, though Lancaster on Monday had five active cases, Berlin nine, and Haverhill anywhere from one to four).
“At least right now, we are in a pretty good position,” said Hart. “Even with some of the variants, there seems to be emerging research that the vaccination covers that. We will be trying to support people as a school system, maybe having vaccination clinics and that type of thing to support folks. The good news is the CDC says get everybody back to school and take precautionary measures only when necessary.”
School Board Member Matt St. John said he worries about presenting a compelling and clear fact-based rationale for why students do not have to wear masks inside school buildings during summer school but do have to wear them in the same buildings, in hallways and cafeterias and other places, in the draft for September.
“I don’t want our reasoning to be random,” said St. John. “The CDC and WHO [World Health Organization] have not always agreed on this, and the NHDHHS [New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services] has not always agreed with them. We have to look at a blend of what’s there.”
The lack of agreement by state and federal health departments makes the job of the school district more complicated, said St. John.
“I think there’s no single source of truth so we should look at all three recommendations,” he said.
A complicating factor could be the district approves a reopening plan only to have the governor issue an emergency order in August that contradicts the plan, said St. John.
The first day of school is scheduled for Aug. 30.
“As we get closer to the opening of school, we need to be as clear with parents and families as early as possible on what reopening’s going to look like so it makes it easier for those families and those parents to plan,” said School Board Chairman Greg Cook. “Last year was difficult because we were in the mix of everything, so I think that parents and community members were frustrated, because it was one week away, two weeks away, and do they have to buy school clothes, do they have to buy masks, do they have to buy something special for a home school thing.”
Because the district knows that nothing will change dramatically pending something catastrophic happening, getting the plan out as early as possible makes it less stressful and makes for less anxiety for the community, he said.
For the 2020-2021 school year, New Hampshire school districts provided support for remote-learning students.
Cook asked for clarification on remote options for parents and students and what the plan is for the fall.
If a family chooses to not send a student to school in the fall, does it revert to the way it was two years ago when that counted as home-schooling with no responsibility for the school district, he asked.
“I think we need to clarify that because we did have several families up until the end of the school year who preferred to keep their children at home in a remote option,” said Cook. “I think we need to see how we’re going to handle that.”
Parent Heidi Hurley said everyone needs to get back to normal, summer school is being conducted mask-less, and the thought about wearing masks in the fall is unacceptable.
She suggested having an emergency Plan B in place in the event COVID conditions change, but to begin the school year normally, as any other school year.
Hart said the CDC guidelines just came out and the district must review all of the recommendations and the advice it’s getting and determine what’s reasonable.
“All the people want to know is if things go south, what’s our plan,” said Hart. “I’m with you 110 percent.”
Cook asked the board for a consensus to task Hart and his administrative team with developing an announcement to families with the intention of opening school up normally, without masks and without restrictions other than what is mandated by the state departments of education and health and human services, and with a contingency plan in place if COVID numbers rise, and with worst-case scenarios through which the district can adapt its program.
Hart agreed to have an announcement on or before Monday, July 26, and then present the reopening plan during the board’s meeting on Aug. 9.