The governor’s announcement that after April 19, remote learning will not count toward the state-required number of instructional days multiplied the frustration of school leaders already rushing to change their reopening plans or seek waivers to continue remotely for another week.
The Monadnock school board voted last week to stick with its plan to bring students back full-time on May 3, instead of April 19. Superintendent Lisa Witte said the announcement about educational days made little difference.
“We’re moving forward with May 3,” Witte said Friday.
Even if Monadnock’s remote days the week of April 19 are not counted, the school district will still meet its required 180 school days this year.
Monadnock, which educates children from Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy, has three remote learning days planned between April 19 and May 3, Witte said. Students are in-person two days each week, and then school vacation falls the week of April 26.
Other schools that were planning to switch from two days a week to full-time in-person on May 3 will likewise only have a few more remote days. Even if the state does not recognize those few remote learning days, most districts will still have 180 days of school this year. School districts typically plan school years a little longer than 180 days to allow for snow days or other emergencies.
If they do not meet the required number, said Carl Ladd of the New Hampshire School Administrator’s Association, districts will not face any material consequences.
The statute requiring 180 school days does not include any penalty and is not tied to a school’s accreditation or funding.
If the state did try to withhold funding as a consequence of having fewer than 180 school days, “That would be a first,” Ladd said.
Still seeking waivers
The governor’s office has said it would consider granting schools permission to go remote for more than two days if the state Education Commissioner and public health officials decided it is necessary.
However, the emergency order lays out narrow circumstances under which a waiver would be granted. More than two days of remote learning would only be allowable, the order states, if “such a transition is necessary due to COVID-19 infections, staffing shortages related to COVID-19 infections, or another unexpected event or series of events related to COVID-19.”
Sununu said state officials are reviewing the waiver requests received from school districts last week.
A Manchester school spokesman said Friday the Queen City was still seeking a waiver from the April 19 mandate. But other large districts, including Nashua, Concord and Londonderry, were revising their plans to bring all students back full-time by April 19.
More teachers getting vaccinated has made it easier for those districts to consider reopening earlier, school board leaders have said. Staff members with serious medical conditions who had been working from home have been cleared to return once they achieve full immunity, two weeks post-vaccination.
In Exeter and Hampton’s School Administrative Unit 16, Superintendent David Ryan said he thought he would need to put in for a waiver — about a third of the middle and high school staff had been working remotely because of medical conditions. With vaccines now whipping along, Ryan said, it will be possible for his district to resume full-time in-person school.
But some problems are more solid.
Berlin Superintendent Julie King said cramped quarters — the district recently moved its middle school to the high school building — has been one of the biggest obstacles to going full-time in-person.
Reopening April 19 was “not doable,” King said Friday, particularly as COVID-19 surges in the district, so she has requested a waiver.
King said Friday that 40 students and staff were out isolating or quarantining after COVID-19 exposure. Short on teachers, substitutes and space, keeping students even three feet apart wouldn’t be possible.
Social distancing on school buses also will be hard for some districts, said Barrett Christina, of the New Hampshire School Boards Association.
Schools have had a hard time hiring enough bus drivers in non-pandemic times, he said. They will be hard-pressed to hire drivers for more buses now, he said, and adding buses can be “prohibitively expensive,” especially for schools in poorer cities and towns.
Christina said perennial problems in poor school districts, like big classes, no surplus of teachers and old buildings with small rooms, have contributed to their difficulty reopening full-time.
For Conway’s School Administrative Unit 9, reopening full-time has been possible in large part because of a newer high school building, Superintendent Kevin Richard said.
“Fifteen years ago, before we built a brand-new high school, we’d be going to dual sessions, because there’s no way we could fit the number of kids into our school safely.”
Local control ‘out the window’
School leaders remain vexed with the April 19 reopening mandate, which they said contradicts the governor’s position last summer that districts should craft their own reopening plans based on local circumstances.
“Now I feel like that’s being thrown out the window,” said King, the Berlin superintendent. “We’re not given a choice anymore.”
Even some districts that are fully open chafed at the April 19 requirement.
“It’s a little frustrating to not be involved in any decision making,” Richard said. “We spent all summer putting our plans in place when there were no plans. To have the governor take the rug from under our feet doesn’t feel real good.”