North Country school districts have two weeks to resume full-time, in-person learning.
Gov. Chris Sununu has announced an April 19 deadline for New Hampshire school districts to offer in-person classes five days a week.
A remote option will still be available for parents and students that request it, he said.
“We have said all along, and it has been proven, that schools can reopen safely, and that remains as true today as ever,” Sununu said Thursday during his weekly press conference.
Sununu said his decision was tied to ongoing vaccinations. Most teachers and school staff have started the vaccination process and, as of Friday, students age 16 and up can register to get their shots.
About 60% of New Hampshire K-12 schools are already open full-time and an additional 16% are offering in-person learning four days a week.
“We all know we need to get our kids back into schools, not just for educational reasons but for mental health reasons, for socialization,” Sununu said. “During the crisis, remote learning was a good backstop, but doesn’t come nearly as close to providing the fulfillment and enrichment that being in the classroom, not just a couple of days a week but five days a week can allow.”
HYBRID TO FULL-TIME
Sununu’s decision impacts school districts that remain in hybrid mode, including White Mountains Regional SAU 36 (Carroll, Dalton, Jefferson, Lancaster and Whitefield) and Littleton SAU 84.
White Mountains has been in a “two-days in-person, three-days remote” hybrid mode since September.
On Friday, district officials hurried to develop a plan. The SAU 36 Health Committee met Friday and will make recommendations to the School Board on Monday night.
The school board is expected to discuss a preliminary plan, which would be finalized over the next two weeks.
Meanwhile, Littleton Schools have been four days in person, with Wednesdays off.
Last week they had voted to stay in that mode for the remainder of the school year. Sununu’s announcement changed that.
Superintendent William Hart spoke Friday with his administrative team, school board members, and other regional superintendents. He is scheduled to confer with teacher’s union officials early next week. The school board will take up the matter at their next meeting on Monday.
“By the end of next week we’ll have a much clearer direction to share with the school community,” he said.
For hybrid districts, the move to full-time in-person poses challenges.
Littleton teachers used the Wednesday off-day to plan, and instruct students who had opted for fully remote learning during COVID. The move to five days a week will likely mean longer days, as teachers increasingly juggle classroom instruction, remote instruction and planning.
COVID had already strained staffing to “critical levels” in the White Mountains Regional School District. It is unclear how the move to five days a week will impact those staffing levels. Many teachers will not be fully vaccinated by April 19.
ALREADY FIVE DAYS
Other school districts in northern New Hampshire have already returned to full-time schedules.
That includes SAU 23 schools in Bath, Haverhill and Piermont, which resumed a five-day school week on March 15, and SAU 58 schools in Stark, Stratford and Northumberland, which have been full-time for the entire school year.
Ronna Cadarette, superintendent for SAU 58, said schools in her district have successfully coped with COVID issues.
“Things are tight, but we have removed furniture to provide for social distancing,” she said, adding, “We have added classes and staff to accommodate for social distancing and student learning challenges.”
Noting that staff shortages are a perennial concern, she said the district continues to search for more full-time staff, substitute teachers, bus drivers and more.
She expects those issues will continue after COVID.
Despite those challenges and more, SAU 58 schools have remained open throughout the 2020-21 school year thanks to what Cadarette called a “strong and valiant community commitment by students, parents, faculty, staff, custodians, kitchen personnel, administrators and our boards who have been focused on having students in our schools every day.”
She said those efforts have benefited students inside — and outside — of the classroom.
“We still seek to support the social-emotional needs of students to be prepared to learn and live healthy lifestyles throughout the pandemic and beyond,” she said.
BY THE NUMBERS
Since March 2020, North Country schools have reported a handful of cases.
Those include Colebrook Academy (3 cases, one active), Colebrook Elementary (6 cases, none active), Lafayette Regional (2 cases, none active), Lancaster Elementary (9 cases, none active), Landaff Blue School (1 case, none active), Lakeway Elementary (3 cases, none active), Lisbon Elementary (3 cases, none active), Littleton High (3 cases, none active), Profile Jr./Sr. High (3 cases, none active), Stratford (1 case, none active), White Mountains Regional High (3 cases, 1 active), Whifefield Elementary (3 cases, none active), and Woodsville High School (1 case, none active).
Statewide, more than 85,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus in New Hampshire, including 410 cases announced Friday. The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in New Hampshire has risen over the past two weeks from 277 new cases per day on March 17 to 357 new cases per day on Wednesday, according to Associated Press reports.
Locally there are 36 active cases in Berlin, nine each in Littleton and Colebrook, seven in Bethlehem, five in Gorham, and at least one in Columbia, Clarksville, Dalton, Franconia, Haverhill, Lancaster, Lincoln, Lisbon, Northumberland, Milan, Monroe, Pittsburg, Stark, Stratford, Sugar Hill, Warren, Whitefield, and Woodstock.