By THOMAS CALDWELL, InDepthNH.org
BRISTOL — When the Newfound Area School Board approved a school reopening plan on Aug 9, it appeared that students would be able return to classes without masks. There was little to no COVID-19 reported in any of the communities at that time.
On Aug. 25, the first day of school, the high school reported the district’s first case of the disease, triggering a mask mandate at that location. As of Aug. 30, the number of cases of COVID-19 in the schools had reached nine, so masks were required at the middle school as well as the high school, and in one classroom at Danbury Elementary School.
School Administrative Unit 4 Superintendent Pierre Couture explained that the Newfound district had developed a plan by the end of last year to keep as many of the classrooms open as possible by limiting the restrictions to just the students who would be at risk. That meant that, at the elementary level, they could target just the classroom where a sick or exposed student had appeared.
“In elementary schools, we’re keeping students in what we call cohorts,” Couture said. “In other words, first grade — they remain to themselves, they don’t go to lunch together [with other students], they’re not in the corridors together. So we decided that, if we had a COVID case in, say, Danbury second grade, we would have just the second-graders wear masks, not the entire school.”
At the middle school, the decisions apply to grade levels because students will switch classes within that grade, but not interact with students in other grades. At the high school, between classes and electives, the entire student body interacts, making it impossible to target a single area, so the mask mandate has to apply to the entire school, he said.
Newfound has a health management team comprising all six school nurses, two principals, the student services director, and the superintendent.
“We said in our plan that we would follow Department of Health and Human Services’ guidelines, and they have what they call a school and childcare toolkit,” Couture said. “We met and we reviewed the toolkit, and then we worked through what we thought the protocols would be.
“We were looking at the guidelines … and they said, with a low transmission rate, we wouldn’t need to require masking, so we would have it as mask optional.” However, the guidelines state that, if a student becomes exposed to COVID-19, “we should switch to masking for 14 days for indoor settings, without requiring any masking outdoors. And then, if there are no further cases within those 14 days, then we could go back to mask-optional.”
When parents attending the Aug. 6 school board meeting spoke out against masks, saying they were ineffective in preventing the spread of the virus, Couture assured them that Newfound would not be imposing a mask mandate unless the situation changed.
It did change on Aug. 25 at the high school; then, on the 26th, a seventh-grade student showed up with COVID-19, extending the mask mandate to that grade. The 27th saw the requirement being extended to the sixth grade and the combination grade 3-4 at Danbury Elementary School. An eighth-grader showing up with COVID on Friday meant that, on Monday, the mask mandate was extended to the entire middle school.
“So that’s where we are,” Couture said. “It’s a very difficult thing because we have a lot of people who are anti-mask.”
Other schools requiring masks include Moultonborough, Merrimack Valley, and Inter-Lakes, and more may do so as other schools reopen. Couture noted that Newfound had one of the earliest school opening dates so was facing the problem sooner than others.
“Right now we’re being overrun with COVID,” Couture said. “I think people need to understand that, last year at this time, we’re talking about closing schools and going remote. This time, we’re simply talking about keeping the schools open and have the kids wear a mask, and they will be safe, so it’s really not a lot to ask. … If you look at the big picture, we’re in a much better place this year than last year.”
Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut was not in today, but his office says they’re not tracking mask mandates so could not help with information.