Some schools struggle to meet mandate on in-person learning

Department of Education building
Gov. Chris Sununu imposed an April 19 deadline for all public schools to resume five-day in-person learning. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

When Seacoast Charter School in Portsmouth opened its doors for the school year last fall, there was little in the way of hard guidelines from the state. So the district designed its own plan.

The school divided its students into “cohorts.” Cohort A would come into school for in-person learning on Monday and Tuesday and move to distance learning Wednesday through Friday. Cohort B would come in on Thursday and Friday and distance learn on the other three days. Wednesdays were fully remote days allowing for teacher planning, special education services, and individualized education program (IEP) meetings.

It was a model used successfully in other districts across the state, and it won the approval of parents and students. This week, though, the model came to a halt.

A deadline imposed by Gov. Chris Sununu for all public schools to resume five-day in-person learning by April 19 has overturned the two-cohort approach, forcing Seacoast Charter to come up with a plan to tackle in-person and remote learning every day, even as some parents have objected.

Now, Head of School Jessica Pine is missing the days of light state oversight.

“We did have lots of choices in the beginning because there was no real guidance,” she said. “And then, all of a sudden, it was like: ‘Here’s the guidance and the mandate, and do it in two weeks.’ So it’s a little discouraging, as educators, for sure.”

As schools worked to meet an April 19 deadline to come back to school five days a week, reactions have varied.

Some schools asked for waivers – and got them. Others asked for waivers and were rejected. Those that didn’t get a special waiver were split, too; at least one school is forging ahead with a later opening without state permission.

In many schools, no adjustments were necessary. Many had already returned to five days a week of in-person education.

“Today is an exciting day for New Hampshire students,” said Commissioner Frank Edelblut in a statement Monday. “While many of our students have been in school all year, starting today most students wanting in-person instruction have that option. We applaud all of our administrators, educators, families, and students, as well as the many members of our communities that serve on local school boards for making this happen.”

But for those working to establish plans per the governor’s order, the deadline prompted a scramble.

Seacoast Charter School

Pine and her staff knew the state would require full-week in-person learning before the end of the school year. They didn’t think it would be in late April.

With teachers receiving their first vaccines in late March, many districts assumed classes would resume around the beginning of May, allowing teachers to ride out their vaccination timetables and prepare for the shift in class mode over April vacation, which begins next week.

“We just weren’t anticipating it would happen so soon,” Pine said.

Suddenly, a teaching staff that had already weathered several major shifts – from going fully remote ahead of the Christmas holidays to returning to the hybrid model in January – braced for another one.

Teachers have reorganized the work day, incorporating in-class instruction with online video streaming for students at home. Without a Wednesday planning session, the work week has expanded.

“Teachers are working weekends and nights to try to make this work,” Pine said. “It’s really tricky.”

The change in schedule has frustrated families, some of whom are now keeping their children home, Pine said.

About 50 of the school’s 300 children will be now studying remotely for the rest of the year, Pine said.

“We’ve lost some families who liked our hybrid and felt like that was a safe option and are now remote,” she said.

There are also staffing issues. With teachers in quarantine, or concerned about viral transmission before they can be fully vaccinated, the ability to keep classes moving in some smaller schools has diminished in recent months.

An informal survey taken by the National Education Association of New Hampshire and shared with the Bulletin found that while many school administrators are concerned about staff levels at school, most said they would be able to operate this week with adjustments.

Carl Ladd, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, said that while some schools have struggled with Sununu’s mandate, most had been planning to ramp up to full-time instruction by early May. The governor’s earlier deadline just quickened the pace.

“It just created a little bit of mayhem where probably it didn’t need to,” he said of the order. “We’ve got districts that are kind of all over the map.”

Different approaches

The rush to reopen has hit districts differently. Larger ones, such as Manchester, had the biggest logistical headaches, from transportation to food services.

But smaller school districts have faced problems, too, such as staffing shortages.

Pressed up against the deadline, some schools sought relief. Sununu’s executive order allowed schools to continue with full- or part-time remote learning, provided they received approval from the Department of Education, Division of Public Health Services, and the governor’s office.

That criteria was narrow. To get an exemption, schools had to show direct COVID-19 infections at the school, staffing shortages related to COVID-19 infections, “or another unexpected event or series of events related to COVID-19.”

Teachers’ concerns about not being fully vaccinated were not enough for a waiver, according to the order.

“I’m not really sure what the rhyme or reason was around some of the decision-making,” Ladd said.

Two neighboring school districts in the southwestern corner of the state mapped different paths. The Keene School District was granted a waiver to open later, the Keene Sentinel reported. The Monadnock Regional School District, based a few miles down the road, opted to ignore the executive order entirely.

“We cannot in good conscience ignore the exigent safety concerns that exist, coupled with the misinformation the Governor has considered in making his decision,” the district wrote to the Department of Education, in a letter approved by the school board.

Among the board’s concerns were the COVID vaccination schedule; because the school district’s teachers received their first shots on March 19, the earliest they could be fully vaccinated is April 23.

Manchester School District, which serves about 13,000 of the state’s students, was granted an extension on reopening. It will open May 3, after the April holiday.

In total, eight waivers were requested statewide; six were granted and two rejected, a spokesman for the Department of Education said on Monday.

Littleton’s waiver request was among those rejected. After an April 5 school board meeting, Superintendent William Hart submitted a bid for an extension. On April 13, the verdict came back from the Education Department.

“Dear Superintendent Hart,” the one-sentence email began. “After consultation with the Governor’s Office and the Division of Public Health, Littleton School District’s Request for a waiver from the requirements of Emergency Order #89 is NOT GRANTED, as the school has not demonstrated that waiver is necessary to address COVID-19 infections, staffing shortages related to COVID-19 infections, or another unexpected event or series of events related to COVID-19.

“Sincerely, Frank Edelblut, Commissioner of Education.”

At a school board meeting Monday, Hart shrugged off the letter.

“Unfortunately . . . the Department of Education did not grant that,” he said. “So we’ll be back full time on Wednesday, and we’ll continue that way for the remainder of school.”