Concord, NH --New Hampshire has released its guidelines for safely reopening schools in the fall, but with Covid-19 cases hitting peak levels across the nation and uncertainty about safe reopening implementation, many are left with unanswered questions. Worse yet, some worry that a potential second wave of infections here in the Northeast could cause further disruptions and risk to students.
In March, Gov. Chris Sununu ordered schools across New Hampshire closed to prevent wide-spread infection of Covid-19. Districts scrambled to implement distance learning and provide remote access via internet connections, home computers, and software to students who needed it. The process was stressful for teachers who were forced to quickly modify curricula, parents who became de facto instructors, and the students who missed their friends and many of the fun activities they’d come to enjoy each spring.
The Lost Opportunity for Comprehensive Planning
The rapid plan development highlighted the urgent need for better planning across New Hampshire’s school districts in the event a Covid-19 outbreak caused schools to close again—or prevented them from even opening. Unfortunately, the back-to-school guidance the School Transition Reopening and Redesign Taskforce released on July 14 gives inadequate guidance for how schools are to reopen and is vague on how certain policies are to be properly implemented.
Protect Our Care NH Chair, Jayme Simoes said “The abdication of leadership in education by the Trump administration has left New Hampshire schools, teachers and parents in a vulnerable place. Washington had months to prepare, and they have done nothing.”
The plan was received poorly by some teachers and drew criticism from the state chapter of the National Education Association for not involving frontline public-school educators on the task force that came up with the school reopening guidelines.
We had hoped for a set of minimum safety standards for all schools to achieve before they were safe to reopen," said Megan Tuttle, NEA-NH president, in a statement. "Instead, we received 56 pages of 'shoulds' not 'shalls.' The fastest way to undo the remarkable progress New Hampshire has made against the virus is to allow these guidelines to define how we reopen our school."
Lisa Dillingham, president of the Dover Teachers’ Union and a sixth-grade science teacher at Dover Middle School, told SeacoastOnline there are clearer guidelines for wearing masks when people are out shopping.
“Walmart is requiring masks now, so it’s going to be safer to go into Walmart than our public schools?” she said. “That’s what it feels like is being said by having us subjected to this.”
Health Impacts of Reopening Schools
As teachers ready their classrooms for the fall, there is apprehension about the impact reopening will have on the health of those interacting with New Hampshire’s school children every day.
Lack of leadership, politicization of preventative measures, such as wearing face masks, and a feeling of being over the virus led to spikes in COVID-19 rates across the country. New Hampshire has seen the rate of infection heading in a positive direction, but public health messaging on whether children can get the virus or pass it on to others has caused more confusion, further complicating the school reopening debate. The New York Times recently reported that a large study from South Korea found that children younger than 10 transmit Covid-19 to others much less often than adults do, but those between the ages of 10 and 19 can spread the virus at least as well as adults do.
While many teachers understand the importance of school on the well-being of young people and their ability to learn, the risk of infection remains. This can be concerning to teachers, parents and administrators, especially those who are older, have compromised immune systems, or care for someone who does. At a time when health care costs can put the average family into financial ruin with one major health incident, the risk of infection carries many levels of concern for families.
Dr. Aaron Carroll, a pediatrician at Indiana University School of Medicine, told New Hampshire Public Radio there are many unanswered questions about how Covid-19 is spread among children and adults.
"Schools will now be the experiment," Carroll says. "We're going to see a bunch of schools open with varying levels of control, and then we will see what happens."