With and without waivers, respectively, SAU 29 and MRSD look to May 3 reopening

Jack Rooney, The Keene Sentinel, N.H.
·5 min read

Apr. 14—Though most schools statewide are set to follow Gov. Chris Sununu's order to resume full in-person instruction Monday, several local districts are moving forward with plans to postpone reopening until students return from spring break.

N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 — which covers Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland — on Tuesday received a waiver from the state to delay a full reopening until May 3, though Marlborough and Marlow had already resumed regular instruction before the governor's order.

Meanwhile, the Monadnock Regional School District — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — still intends to wait until May 3 to offer in-person classes five days a week, Superintendent Lisa Witte said Tuesday. Instead of requesting a waiver from the state, though, the Monadnock school board last week voted to send a letter to N.H. Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut declaring the district's intent to postpone fully reopening.

"Since the Board vote, we've been able to say definitively that May 3rd is the date," Witte said in an email. "Districts that applied for a waiver are just learning now, less than a week before they were planning to shift on April 19th, that they are again changing course and plan on May 3rd. We've been able to avoid any confusion about the date as a result of the Board's action."

And though Sununu said last Thursday that districts that do not comply with the order to reopen April 19, or get a waiver, may need to add extra days to the school year, since remote learning will no longer count toward state-mandated instructional hours, Witte said that won't be necessary in the Monadnock district.

"Even if we are told we cannot count the three remote days we will have during the week of April 19 while still hybrid, we still meet the minimum number of instructional hours for the entire school year (we actually still exceed the minimum number of instructional hours)," Witte said. "There would be no need to make up any days at the end of the school year."

Throughout the school year, students in the Monadnock district have attended school in person two days per week and done remote learning the rest of the week. Families can also choose for their children to learn fully remotely, an option that will remain for the rest of the academic year.

Witte added Tuesday that no one from the state had contacted the district about its decision to return to full in-person instruction May 3.

In the Monadnock Region, most schools are using some form of hybrid approach, with in-person learning ranging from two to four days each week. Some local schools have already returned to full-time in-person schedules, while some others still using hybrid models were in the process of transitioning back to in-person learning prior to Sununu's announcement earlier this month.

The governor's executive order allows for districts to request a waiver to push back the April 19 reopening date due to safety concerns.

Both Witte and SAU 29 Superintendent Robert Malay have expressed worry that staff members would not be fully vaccinated by Monday.

"It wouldn't be very helpful if we began [fully reopening] and had to resort or pivot back to a different model because folks became ill for whatever reason," Malay said Tuesday. "So, if my workforce is fully vaccinated, that increases our ability to maintain our staffing level to provide the on-site learning opportunities for our students."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people are considered fully vaccinated 14 days after their second dose of a two-shot COVID-19 vaccine. That means most staff members in SAU 29 and the Monadnock district won't get the vaccine's full protection until the last week of April, their superintendents have said. Monadnock and the SAU 29 districts are on spring break April 26-30.

The extra time to prepare for full reopening also gives SAU 29 schools a better chance to rearrange classrooms and other shared spaces to accommodate the minimum 3 feet of distance between students that the state health department currently recommends, Malay said. The Monadnock school board had similar concerns with the state-ordered April 19 reopening.

"As a Board, we cannot in good conscience place our partially vaccinated, non-fully protected employees in situations where we know less than 3' of social distancing is likely," the board wrote in its letter to the state education department. "Our planned return beginning on May 3rd will ensure that our employees are protected if they are in a situation where less than 3' of social distancing occurs."

And while the SAU 29 districts still operating in a hybrid model, including Keene, have plenty of work to do before welcoming students back five days a week, Malay said staff members will be ready, and excited, to reopen fully.

"I think relief is probably how I feel, that we're getting back to a greater sense of normalcy," he said. "The pandemic has disrupted so many lives in so many ways, that to have this one piece of our life back to what we can at least consider somewhat normal, is a huge relief."

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.