By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – For the behavioral health and psychological wellbeing of the state’s children, Gov. Chris Sununu said at his Thursday news conference that he will issue an executive order requiring school districts to return them to classrooms for at least two days a week starting March 8.
“The data is all very clear whether it is the state, the CDC, everyone has said that there is no reason,” not to open all schools, that they have “to come into at least a hybrid level of learning,” Sununu said.
“It isn’t just so that kids can have a fuller, robust learning model,” Sununu said. “It is for the behavioral mental health well-being” of those children who are suffering from the isolation caused by the virus.
Megan Tuttle, president of the teachers’ union NEA-NH, told Sununu on Twitter that he is late to the game.
“Educators and districts have already worked together to reopen more than 80 percent of New Hampshire schools for at least two to three days a week of in-person instruction – some for even more days each week.
“The Governor was late to the game on recommending safety protocols for schools. He still has not responded to our repeated requests to meet to work together on this issue. And now, late again and at the last minute, he issues an Emergency Order to mandate schools provide some measure of in-person instruction. We have no doubt that we will see this action on his list of ‘accomplishments’ as he begins his run for Senate,” Tuttle said.
She said Sununu did not reopen schools – New Hampshire’s educators and administrators have worked creatively and collaboratively to get the work done.
“Let’s be clear- this new Emergency Order does very little to change the current landscape of open school buildings, impacting only a small number of schools that are not yet offering some degree of in-person instruction,” Tuttle said.
Sununu announced the emergency school order at the press conference as state officials said they are having to expand emergency psychological health housing for children who are waiting in emergency rooms. Sununu said the pandemic and its isolation “vastly exacerbated” that crisis for children and science has shown that classrooms are safe.
“We see that in the number of kids waiting in our emergency rooms for a bed,” Sununu said.
About 60 percent of all public schools in grades Kindergarten through 12 have some form of hybrid learning, he said. About 40 percent of all those schools are now offering fully in-person learning. Fewer than a half dozen school districts have been fully remote.
Sununu said he will not require what days a week the schools be open but as of March 8, schools need to offer in-person learning unless they get some sort of waiver from the state Department of Education.
He noted almost a year ago, on March 16, 2020, “the state did make a tough decision to bring all schools remote.”
Sununu noted in the months that followed last March’s closing the state developed a guidance document by state epidemiologist Dr. Ben Chan that would allow for schools to stay open and what criteria to consider for closing and going to remote learning.
He said the next group of residents to get vaccinated will be about 50,000 teachers and staff and he hoped that will begin in early April. While there has been some concern raised by teachers’ unions about safety, “we are going back to the way it was,” before COVID-19, he said.
“We have allowed a lot of flexibility,” he said noting that there are financial resources available and untapped.
He called the Biden Administration’s message on COVID-19 and classrooms “confusing” even though they initially had the right idea recommending schools reopen.
In recent weeks, Sununu said, “They have let politics confuse the issue.”
Dr. Chan said there were 461 new cases of the virus in the state Thursday, averaging 350 to 400 new cases per day in the past week. While the numbers are slightly increasing he attributed that to a spike in cases at colleges and universities noting that 131 of the day’s cases were associated with colleges.
“We continue to work with educational institutions….to implement measures on these residential school campuses,” Chan said.
In New Hampshire, there are 3,048 active cases and the state’s positivity rate is 4.4 percent, stable in the past four days and substantially down from previous weeks, Chan said. Importantly, hospitalizations are down at 126 Thursday, he said.
Two new deaths were reported Thursday, both residents of long-term care facilities.
“We continue to recommend people get vaccinated when it is offered,” Chan said and he urged people to wear face masks in public and continue to social distance.
Dr. Beth Daly of the state Bureau of Infectious Diseases said as of Thursday 228,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered including 72,000 with second doses. That means about 11 percent of the state’s population has had at least one dose and 5 percent a second.
The state expects over 5,000 more doses next week than this week, going from about 22,000 to 27,000. This will accelerate vaccination schedules.
Daly said equity allocation continues to grow and is targeting the vulnerable poor, elderly and homeless. There are 44 vaccination events that have been scheduled at low-income and senior housing and if a person has been able to get a vaccine through that and has a later scheduled vaccine they can call 2-1-1 to be sure the state has canceled the other date, thereby opening that spot up to someone else.
In most cases, however, if the state reschedules a person to a better date they do not need to cancel because the state has done that for them.
Lori Shibinette, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said there is a continued positive trend at the state’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities with the closing of 13 outbreaks and the opening of only one – Mount Carmel Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Manchester. That leaves about 11 active outbreaks.
“Over last several months we have seen this continue with steady progress,” Shibinette said.
Shibinette said unfortunately, pediatric psychiatric care issues are exploding with a waitlist at historic levels in emergency rooms. She said she has commissioned 10 beds in a wing at the New Hampshire Hospital previously serving adults to serve kids. She called this a “mental health crisis.”
Shibinette said she anticipates being able to find more hospital beds for the adult population and that this is a temporary move.