By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Finding the money to pay for what is needed to safely reopen schools this fall and inconsistencies in guidance and policies from district to district are major concerns of local school officials and educators.
The House and Senate education committees held a joint meeting Tuesday to be briefed on plans for the beginning of the school year in light of the coronavirus pandemic that shut school buildings from March until June as public schools moved to remote learning.
The lawmakers heard from Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, and from superintendents around the state, the state’s largest teachers’ union, special education and career and technical center educators, local school board members, school nurses, and athletic and transportation officials, who had concerns about what the fall will bring.
Gov. Chris Sununu and Edelblut recently released guidelines for opening schools touting the flexibility of “local control,” leaving details to local school districts, instead of a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
But many of the education officials said while they appreciate the flexibility, it also creates problems with different approaches from district to district.
“The guidelines are vague,” said Andrea Folsom, vice chair of the Hopkinton School Board, “but the science is clear, we need masks for all the students and teachers, and (personal protective equipment) for the nurses.”
But her district has yet to pass a budget, and the need for PPE, to upgrade facilities, additional cleaning, to catch up students who fell behind under remote learning and to deal with emotional issues cost additional money, she said.
When Edelblut was asked about funding for unbudgeted work, he said districts received CARES Act money to offset costs of the pandemic and there is additional funds for broadband and other money as well.
But superintendents from five regions of the state said most of the money they received from the CARES Act is already spent and some of what they received had to go to private schools in their districts.
Lisa Witte, superintendent of the Monadnock School District, said the district received “$440,000 and that will not come close to covering all of the costs we are looking at.”
She said the district will have to purchase such things as desks, touchless sinks and PPE.
“While we are grateful for the funds,” Witte said, “our expenditures will exceed that amount. Reaching Higher New Hampshire did an analysis of the CARES money and it is approximately $213 per student, which is not a significant amount of money.”
Many of the people speaking to the committees said they had been working on reopening issues for some time with many appointing task forces.
They all said the top priority is the health and safety of students, staff and families, but noted they are in uncharted waters and many issues still need to be resolved.
House Education Committee Chair Mel Myler, D-Hopkinton, said this is a massive problem and there needs to be more leadership.
“This is the first time the legislature has been involved in this process and it needs to be involved in this process,” he said “We’ve heard a lot about the funding issue and a lot of inconsistency. People are doing the best job they possibly can in a very difficult situation and need a bit more leadership from all parties.”
But Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, said he was concerned about Myler saying there is a lack of leadership.
He said issues have been raised that can be addressed and leadership will do that. “To say there is a lack of leadership is a tremendous error,” Ladd said.
Several school board members expressed frustration with the way the Department of Education handled the guidelines, noting there was little collaboration with local districts.
Royal Richardson, long-time chair of the Chester School Board, said he would like to see a more collaborative partnership with the Department of Education. Instead of a collaboration, he said the department delivers information it has decided without input from professionals and officials. “That’s a terrible waste,” Richardson said.
Shannon Barnes, chair of the Merrimack School Board, said the board decided to make wearing masks optional for students, because “we were very worried about mask enforcement.
“Not having that requirement from the governor to wear a mask,” she said, “makes enforcement locally very difficult.”
Several school officials noted they are mandating masks be worn but are concerned that parents who do not believe in them will sue the districts.
Several lawmakers wondered why the state guidelines did not include mandatory face coverings for the opening of schools, and Edelblut said it was one of a number of mitigation efforts that, put together, will make it safer for students and staff.
“The mitigation strategies are to be protective and at the same time realistic,” Edelblut said, “what can be effectively implemented.”
He said face masks are not a good strategy for very young children who will often touch the mask and then many other things.
But he said they are for older students in districts that believe masks are appropriate when social distancing is not possible.
“It is important to recognize there is not one silver bullet in terms of mitigation,” Edelblut said. “It’s like layers of Swiss cheese, you put in layers to minimize the risk to students and staff, each district is going to build their own Swiss cheese.”
But Paula MacKinnon of the New Hampshire Nurses Association, said that analogy treats mitigation as a menu option.
“It is not a menu option, it has to be some combination of all of these things,” she said. “in all those pieces of Swiss cheese, the holes has gotten bigger and you need more and more layers.”
She was also concerned the Department of education had not hired a nurse to oversee school nurses approved in last year’s budget.
It is a shame that person was not in place when the pandemic happened, she noted instead the Department of Health and Human Services will have a person answer questions from school nurses when they arise.
But she noted that person is not a school nurse and has yet to be hired.
MacKinnon said her organization has been working on guidelines for reopening but wanted to wait until the state issued its guidelines so there would be no confusion.
“We’re frustrated we did not get something definitive from the state,” she said. “The many concerns we raised did not show up in the (state guidance) document.”
Another concern expressed by many at the briefing was Sununu’s executive order requiring every school hold a team meeting for every child with an individual education plan within 30 days of the opening of school.
Senate education committee chair Jay Kahn, D-Keene, asked Edelblut if there is any flexibility or is the department going to hold the districts to the 30-day deadline.
Edelblut said the department would be responsive to concerns with some latitude and flexibility working through those evaluations.
“It is very important those students have the opportunity to access their education,” Edelblut said, “and we will work with districts to make sure that happens.”
But several special education administrators said the 30-day figure is unrealistic with 12 to 14 percent of students on individual education plans.
Rachel Borge, special education director of Hudson schools, said special educators learned about the 30-day deadline at the same time as parents from a Sununu press conference and her office was flooded with calls wanting to know what the plan was.
“Timely communication is a problem,” Borge said, noting it will take time to assess what the students have missed because of remote learning, but the early stages of returning to the classroom is not the time to make those determinations.
In order to meet the deadline, school districts would need to hold team meetings with parents, special education teachers and regular teachers, but that costs money because the teachers would need to be paid for the summer work.
Other concerns raised by educators were the early retirement of older teachers and others who have immune system issues or family members who do, and some teachers do not want to return until there is a safer environment.
Similar concerns were expressed by transportation officials who said bus drivers were difficult to hire before the pandemic and maybe impossible now.
The head of the National Education Association-NH Megan Tuttle said what the state guidelines are really saying is “you are on your own.”
“We all want to see our kids back in school,” she said, “but rushing our children back into the classrooms and onto the buses early is not the best thing to do.”
By placing their priority on flexibility instead of student safety, she said, takes the governor and the commissioner out of the safety conversation.
Myler and Kahn will meet to discuss if the two committees should hold another joint meeting to discuss school reopening, noting the time is short.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.