By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Public school officials told legislators Wednesday the state has sent conflicting messages, failed to provide timely safety and health guidance, and needs to provide additional money to school districts in order to continue reopening schools during the pandemic.
The joint Senate and House education committees heard from superintendents, special educators, school nurses, principals and school board members on the successes and challenges they faced reopening schools this fall.
The lack of additional funding to help pay for personal protection equipment if they can access it, and for changes made to school facilities to improve air movement, the lack of substitute teachers and staff in general, and the two-week quarantine requirement for students and staff for travel outside New England were universal concerns for education officials.
Others concerns were a new Department of Education requirement for an assessment test later this month and how the data would be used, and the impact on state aid with many parents deciding to homeschool their students and a three percent increase in state retirement system costs.
Money issues dominated concerns and how school districts and their administrators have had to adjust their budgets to pay for both implementing remote learning last March and upgrading school facilities for schools to reopen last month with COVID-19 lurking throughout the state.
Most superintendents said the biggest expense was air circulation and purifying systems for buildings.
Manchester superintendent John Goldhardt said his district paid over $1 million to make every building safe. He said while Manchester received $5.8 million in federal CARES Act funds, it had to spend $10.9 million to be ready to reopen this fall, noting some of that money had to go to private schools under the federal guidelines.
He noted the district issued a $1.3 million bond to purchase more Chromebooks and laptops for students and teachers.
Marion Anastasia, superintendent of SAU 36, which includes the White Mountain Regional School District, said one district bought 200 air purifiers for its classrooms.
She said her district received $386,000 of CARES act money, spent that much again in local money and grants, and could have used more.
Anastasia noted about one quarter of the students are in home school programs this year which will greatly reduce state adequacy aid, which is determined by attendance.
Other superintendents expressed similar concerns about the growing number of homeschooled students with fears about infection from the virus.
At the same time ongoing expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic will need to be included in the 2021-2022 budget being developed now, Anastasia said.
“The list goes on and on and I have not figured out how it will all play out,” Anastasia said. “We simply do not have the money in our communities and we will need assistance to open our schools next year.”
Mark MacLean, superintendent of Merrimack Valley and Andover schools, said it may appear his district has not spent all the CARES Act money. The district tried to purchase plexiglass barriers and air purifiers, but they are on backorder as well as thermal thermometers, he said, while PPE purchases are ongoing.
Lisa Witte, superintendent in the Monadnock region, said her district received $423,000 which is about $257 per student, but has spent $600,000 on COVID-19 related expenses.
Others said they were promised the Federal Emergency Management Agency would pay 75 percent of the cost of PPE, but a change in federal rules prevented that resulting in charges they did not anticipate.
Senate Education Committee chair Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, asked if the superintendents had been asked to catalogue the COVID-19 expenses, and most said they had not but had been doing that because they expect it from their school boards.
At the end of the meeting, he said “the most telling to me is nobody asked these school administrators how much they are in deficit for COVID-related expenses this school year, given that they can provide those answers to us today.”
House Education Committee chair Rep. Mel Myler, D-Hopkinton, said the superintendents made a similar plea to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Recovery and Relief, which oversees the distribution of the states $1.25 billion federal CARES Act funds and did not receive a commitment.
He suggested they have a meeting with Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut who was expected to attend Wednesday’s meeting, but the chairs were told Tuesday he would not be able to attend because of the Executive Council meeting.
Kahn said he offered to change the schedule as Edelblut was to be the last presenter to address concerns raised by the school officials, but did not receive a reply.
Lack of Guidance
Several superintendents said the state was slow to provide health safety guidance to school districts as they planned their openings this fall.
“We appreciate local control to make decisions that are very specific to our district,” Witte said, “but more direct guidance from the beginning would have been helpful.”
She said the district developed its own health and safety guidelines and metrics to change models from hybrid to remote if students test positive.
“We did our own with the best information we could find,” Witte said. “Only after we finalized our plan, did the state release its plan. That would have been helpful earlier in the process.”
She noted the state also sent conflicting messages saying it is all right to fully engage in sports but not fully engage in school.
“That’s a very polarizing topic and more concrete guidance would have been helpful,” she said.
Nancy Wells of the NH School Nurses Association said the state has been sending mixed messages on safety that has led to confusion among nurses, administrators and parents.
“We know we have COVID here,” Wells said, “but school plans and protocols vary district to district which is confusing.”
She said if a nurse sends a student home to be tested because she or he has symptoms that could be COVID, parents often call the Department of Health and Human Services and are told one thing, and a school administrator is told something else and the student is back in school instead of quarantining, Wells said.
“We need clear concise messaging from the state,” she said. “This is not a usual school year and we need people to understand that.”
Many school officials said they face staff shortages in all areas — nurses, para educators, custodians and bus drivers — not just teachers and substitutes.
The shortages are compounded when a student tests positive for COVID and students and his teachers in close contact with the infected student have to quarantine for two weeks, they said.
Superintendents said they are being inundated by questions about traveling over the Thanksgiving break.
Currently staff and students may travel in New England without having to quarantine when they return. But if they travel to New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania or beyond they have to quarantine for two weeks before returning to school.
Several superintendents said those restrictions would result in many students and teachers out of schools for two weeks.
Several districts plan to do remote learning after the Thanksgiving break until at least the end of January and others until after the spring vacation.
Several said the new testing machines the state received produce results in 15 minutes and they would help with the quarantine issue, but school districts have been told the machines are going to hospitals.
Gov. Chris Sununu issued three executive orders to ensure special education students were receiving the required services under their individual education plans.
One required schools to hold meetings with parents to determine if their student needs compensatory services due to the restrictions of remote learning, to return to fact-to-face instruction as soon as possible and a third would impose a $1,000 per student fine for not following the other two executive orders.
Special education administrators told legislators the districts have essentially completed the required meeting, although at some expense financially and educationally, and to date there have been few requests for compensatory services.
Caroline Arakelian of SAU 21 in the Seacoast said special education teachers and administrators should have equal time to air their side in any decision on fines.
“None of us can make COVID-19 go away, we cannot make safety protocols go away,” she said. “We all have to deal with them and provide the services our students are entitled to.”
Several superintendents and principals were concerned about the interim tests the Department of Education requires this month.
While the department has offered the testing in the past, most districts have not used them and instead do the statewide assessment tests later in the school year.
Kevin Carpenter, principal of Kennett High School, said he and others “are struggling with why we are given an interim assessment test by the state.
“We have no history with it. The data is not sufficient and we’re not sure what the data will be used for.”
Joe Boggio principal at Hinsdale Elementary School, said the test has never been used before.
“I’m not sure how much benefit we will get from that data and don’t know what will be done with that data by the state department,” he said.
House Education Committee member Rep. Linda Tanner, D-Sunapee, said she has called around to schools in her district and reopening has been a mixed bag.
“The fall testing cycle is like kicking them when they are down,” she said, “they wonder if it will be used against them creating a lose, lose situation.”
The legislators will not hold another meeting with school officials before a new legislature is sworn in in December.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.