Paul Feely's City Hall

SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS expressed concern last week over an increase in incomplete grades and reports of “ghosting” classes at Manchester public high schools.

According to the report by Assistant Superintendent Amy Allen, staff at Manchester High School West reported 1,218 incomplete grades at the end of last school year — approximately 22% of all classes offered. So far, an estimated 200 of those courses have been made up.

Manchester High School Central reported roughly 500 incomplete courses have been made up. Through Oct. 28, 316 students had yet to complete 796 courses.

Allen said staff at Central mentioned a practice known as “ghosting,” where students shut off their laptop cameras during remote learning sessions and don’t respond when prompted by a teacher.

At Manchester Memorial High School, staff reported 1,032 incomplete grades from a pool of 365 total students through Oct. 29, with 246 of those students without more than one grade.

“We do have a significant number of our students who are not engaged,” Allen said. “If we have to go to a virtual environment, we have to find more creative ways to engage these students.”

“It’s very concerning to me,” said board vice chair Leslie Want. “I also know ‘ghosting’ is not a problem unique to Manchester. It impacts students’ ability to learn and their performance.”

At-large board member Jim O’Connell said he has heard from families whose students are ashamed to turn on their cameras.

“There are kids who don’t want their peer group to see the conditions in which they live,” O’Connell said.

“They are never going to turn on the camera. I understand some people do it for other reasons, but clearly there are kids here in Manchester in circumstances that they would never want their peer group to know.”

Expect the school board to have additional discussions and updates on incomplete grades and “ghosting” at future meetings.

“I cannot, and will not, ever accept when I hear people say the students don’t care, the parents don’t care... Those are evil words for me as a superintendent,” Superintendent John Goldhardt said. “I think they do care. Many of them just don’t know how, or don’t feel connected.”

Rethinking danger

Manchester police are expected to soon end the practice of issuing statements to the public that include information that an incident is not believed to be random or that the public is not in danger.

The topic came up after a man called in to last Tuesday’s public participation session asking about the phrasing. He said his Bridge Street home recently had been burglarized and his car stolen.

“I read in the newspaper that when crimes happen in Manchester, there’s no danger to the public, and I’m saying this is no longer the case,” said the man, who identified himself as Richard Everett. “We moved to town as the pandemic started, and we don’t know anybody. Any crime against us would have to be random.”

New police chief Allen Aldenberg was asked about the language by alderman Pat Long.

“We have recently discussed that as a command staff,” Aldenberg said. “You’ll probably start seeing that less and less in press releases.”

“I think we got into that practice well-intended, but let’s be honest — when somebody shoots rounds in a public street, or behind a building, or behind a residence or whatever it may be, there’s a danger to the public,” Aldenberg said. “So I think we just need to clean that up a bit on our end, and I’ve already addressed it.”

Selling free lunch

Mayor Joyce Craig sent a letter last week to members of the state’s congressional delegation asking for help with adequacy aid tied to the free and reduced lunch program for students in the Queen City and across the state.

Since the pandemic began, the Manchester School District has offered every student access to free school lunches, whether they applied or not.

Consequently, as of Oct. 31, requests for free lunches were down approximately 20%, with reduced cost lunch requests down roughly 3%.

“This decrease in enrollment does not reflect the needs of our community, however, and if this continues, the Differentiated Aid under the Adequacy formula that is tied to the number of students receiving free and reduced lunch will be approximately $3.6 million lower than this year,” Craig wrote.

“This problem is not unique to Manchester, and many other districts are also facing the prospect of losing significant amounts of funding.”

According to the mayor, the school district has increased outreach efforts to parents to encourage them to fill out their income eligibility forms, “but because students are learning remotely and are not interacting with district staff as frequently, this communication is much more difficult.”

“And since free lunches are already available to all students, there is little incentive to fill out these necessary forms,” she said.

“This is an unintended consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic that could have detrimental impacts on school district budgets across the state.”

Funding the front line

In April, Gov. Chris Sununu enacted the COVID-19 Long Term Care Stabilization Program, which provided $300 weekly stipends to 23,000 front line workers at long-term care facilities through July 31, 2020.

In addition, the First Responder COVID-19 Stipend Program provided $300 weekly stipends to all New Hampshire firefighters, police officers, Emergency Medical Services personnel and correctional facility workers from May 4 to June 30.

Also in April, city aldermen accepted $240,000 in COVID-19 Supplemental Funds from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last week, city health director Anna Thomas told aldermen she intends to use a portion of those funds to give all current and active Manchester Health Department employees a weekly COVID-19 Public Health Stipend of $50 based on regular hours worked — up to 40 a week — for the period between March 1 and Oct. 31.

Nashua already uses the same funding to provide a similar stipend for all staff based on a percentage of an employee’s annual salary.

In total, Thomas estimates, this amounts to approximately $70,300 in stipends and $25,900 in benefit costs for 63 employees, for a total of $96,200.

Thomas says she will forgo the stipend, stressing her staff are the ones deserving of the extra funds.

“They have spent countless hours away from their families and personal obligations to serve the constituents of (Manchester) well during this public health emergency,” Thomas said.

“Many have put themselves in hazardous situations, such as in our testing sites, providing direct nursing care to suspect cases and responding to clusters and outbreaks 24/7, in order to prevent the spread of this novel coronavirus. I could not be more proud to serve among them, and this gesture is a small way of expressing our collective gratitude for their sacrifice.”

Ward 6 election

Following the resignation of former Ward 6 alderman Elizabeth Moreau last month, a special election for the seat has been scheduled for Tuesday, March 2, 2021, at the Henry J. McLaughlin Middle School. The term runs out Jan. 4, 2022.

The filing period for the seat will run from Jan. 4 through Jan. 15, 2021. The city clerk’s office is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m.

Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at pfeely@unionleader.com

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