By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The state issued a new guidance document Tuesday to help schools through grade 12 determine when to go to hybrid or remote learning or return to the classroom in case of COVID-19 infections.
Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state’s epidemiologist said the guidance, requested by school administrators, comes at a time when the state is doing fairly well managing the pandemic, just as the doors to the school swing open for the first time since March. It was announced at Gov. Chris Sununu’s regular Tuesday news conference.
Chan said he is watching for three factors: an average of 20 new cases a day, very few new hospitalizations, and a very low positivity rate of COVID-19 from tests (ranging at 1 percent or lower).
On Tuesday there were no new COVID-19 deaths to report with 23 new infections reported.
The state also announced the launch of its school COVID-19 dashboard, which went live Tuesday and will be the most timely source of information on new cases from the elementary schools to the colleges, officials said.
Sununu also addressed a range of issues, many related to opening classrooms, during his press briefing.
Last Friday, President Donald Trump visited New Hampshire for a re-election rally in Londonderry and it was obvious from photos of the event that many people were not wearing a mask in defiance of Sununu’s mask order for events of 100 people or more.
Sununu said the Trump organization did its best to make it clear that masks were going to be required at the event and they made several announcements to that effect. Many people “booed” when they announced masks should be worn and continued to not wear the mask.
Sununu said that the individuals would not be charged under the mask requirement but the organizers might be fined if they failed to make a good-faith effort to get participants at events of over 100 people to wear a mask.
Whether the Trump campaign is fined is up to the Attorney General’s Office, Sununu said.
Sununu said seeing photos of the crowds of maskless people standing close together at the rally, which he did not attend, made him feel similar to how he feels in the grocery store when he sees people not wearing masks.
“I don’t want to single out one event,” said Sununu who supports Trump. “Any time I see folks who are not taking it seriously…I get frustrated.”
Sununu acknowledged that the state has hired a consultant to look at potential spending reductions within the state Department of Health and Human Services, which represents between 30 and 40 percent of the state budget expenditures.
He said the hope is that the consultant will help find ways to cut costs, reduce redundancies, and find efficiencies. Sununu also noted that he has asked department heads to look at finding their own ways to help reduce costs and said he is not waiting for Congress to act on a state bailout.
Death Penalty Commutation
Sununu said he would never support commuting the death penalty, even though the state has abolished it, overriding his veto.
He said he was “shocked” that both Democratic gubernatorial challengers (Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky and State Senator Dan Feltes) said during a debate Monday night that they would commute the sentence of the only person on death row in the state, Michael Addison.
Globally, Chan said, there are now 25.5 million cases of the virus and more than 6 million in the United States. In total New Hampshire has had 7,297 people test positive since March. There was one new hospitalization for a total of 715.
And while there were no new deaths Tuesday, there have been 432 people who have died due to the highly transmissible respiratory virus.
New Hampshire continues to do well, Chan said.
The new guidance document for schools in grades K-12 helps to provide some metrics for school leaders to consider as they navigate uncharted waters, and gives them some guideposts on possible levels of transmission and level of school impact, officials said.
The two main factors are the level of community transmission and the level of individual school impact, Chan said. The criteria used to look at the community, or county level are the positivity rate of COVID-19 cases which in the state are universally low.
Another factor to be considered is the level of community transmission. Chan said it is the rate of new infections over 14 days. The third and final criteria for considering community transmission is the rate of new hospitalizations over 14 days in that community.
These together will add up to one of three: a minimal, moderate or substantial level of community transmission to consider.
A second metric looks at the level of school impact in relation to that community transmission. This will look at transmission levels within a school facility, student absentees due to illness, the number of adequate staff to conduct school operations. That will then give the school low-, medium-, or high-risk levels.
Chan said the state has had the ability to monitor school absenteeism since 2009 and has tracked flu viruses in the past. This will continue to be monitored and this data will be fed into the dashboard that administrators can review.
Chan said this is not meant to direct schools on how to reopen but to give them some way to consider the risks. He said the state’s approach is to work with schools and not mandate closures or openings.
He said schools requested additional guidance and he hopes this can be a helpful tool.
“We will work with schools,” Chan stressed. The information is posted online at nh.gov/covid19/resources-guidance/schools.htm.
“We will continue to work with schools to make sure they can work in a safe manner,” Chan said, including how to identify exposures and when to quarantine.
Chan said the state continues to urge testing for COVID-19 noting it is available to all “so we can rapidly identify infections.” He said some schools have decided to delay the start of school and “we are attempting to support them as best we can.”
Some have decided to only offer remote learning while some have decided to offer a hybrid approach which is a combination of in-class and on-line learning while some school districts have decided to go back in person entirely.
Chan said state health leaders have been having weekly calls with school nurses and leaders for the last six weeks. Ultimately, he said, each school is in a different situation and location.
“It’s difficult to come up with a one-size fits all,” he said. “A lot of things we do in public health is an approach in a collaborative way,” he stressed. “We are not a regulatory entity.”
Chan said however, the state might advise going to a temporary remote learning scenario in some cases but in all cases “we will work with them.” Lunch rooms are an issue, Chan conceded, and on these calls every week, there have been concerns about large gatherings where people are eating without a mask.
The state is recommending schools try and maintain a distance of at least six feet between students and sometimes that may be difficult.
Options include having students eat in the classroom, look to build hard plastic barriers between students, and looking at cleaning and disinfecting protocols.
More than 80 percent of the deaths the state has suffered from COVID-19 have been associated with long-term care.
Overall, the state has seen a reduction in outbreaks or clusters of three or more cases.
Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette, said there is a new outbreak, however, at Mountain View in Ossipee in Carroll County where four staff and one resident have tested positive. There are still two ongoing outbreaks in the state at Evergreen nursing home and at the Rockingham County House of Correction.
Shibinette said eight youths and four staff of Pro Ambitions Hockey Camp in Nashua have tested positive and the state has been able to notify all people in that cluster. She said some of the youths were from other states.
Sununu said there have been a couple of cases of outbreaks with youth sports camps this summer and some have not followed guidance documents.
“We are trying to work as collaboratively as we can,” to reduce the chance for future outbreaks, but he said now that school is starting those summer camp issues will likely not be an issue in the days to come.
Sununu announced that 230,000 reusable cloth face coverings are going to schools from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The masks will be distributed based on the need, he said. Many schools are requiring students to wear masks.
“Masks save lives,” Sununu said.
Food for All
He also noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has offered waivers to allow schools to provide meals to students at no charge, and any student who wants a meal will get it at no charge for both in-person learning and remote learning.
“This action is incredibly important,” Sununu said. “To be able to have this waiver is a huge benefit.”
The state’s new COVID-19 school dashboard was launched Tuesday at nh.gov/COVID19. Visitors to the site can explore information on cases of the virus in all schools, including colleges, and it will be updated daily and provide the most timely and accurate information, state officials said.
Gersh Autism has agreed to buy Crotched Mountain and continue operation https://crotchedmountain.org/crotched-mountain-school-to-remain-open-under-new-ownership/
Sununu said this was another good news story of the day noting Crotched had earlier announced it would close under the financial stresses of COVID-19.
He said the state worked immediately with the school and now it appears there is a new provider.