School leaders carry a heavy burden as they prepare to welcome back students

By: - August 3, 2021 6:15 am
An seafoam green backpack hanging on a doorknob

House Bill 1131 would carry professional consequences for teachers. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

With the Delta variant spreading, vaccination rates plateauing, and mask-wearing increasingly divisive, school leaders have an unenviable job this year: write pandemic safety plans using inconsistent public health guidance and interpret local transmission rates to decide when to scale up or scale down safety measures, such as masks.

Then, they must sell it to staff, students, and parents without firm state rules for support – while also trying to hire during a workforce shortage.

“We will become the punching bags,” said Meryl Levin, executive director of Mills Falls Charter School in Manchester. “If you are not going to back us up and explain this to our communities, at a minimum interpret the data for us. I think that’s a fair ask.” 

A recent Zoom call for school and child care leaders with state epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan illustrates how stressful and uncertain this has become. The state Department of Health and Human Services’ Zoom account, capped at 500 attendees, couldn’t handle the demand. 

Chan offered apologies and assurance the state will increase the capacity limit before the next call on Aug. 11. Unable to respond to all 100-plus chat comments, the ​department​​ posted a recording of the presentation online, and Chan said his office will continue reviewing its guidance. 

As school leaders head into a new school year, only two COVID-19 protocols are certain: Everyone must be masked on school buses, and schools can’t require unvaccinated students and staff to wear masks if they don’t do the same for their vaccinated peers. 

The state is leaving the rest – including not just masks, but contact tracing, testing, and social-distancing policies – to local schools. 

The state is recommending school districts follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance – mostly – and monitor and interpret not just their county infection level but also the number of new cases in their district’s communities. Unlike the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommend all staff and students over the age of 2 wear masks inside schools, the state is recommending a “more nuanced” approach, Chan said, that asks school officials to interpret local and county transmission rates as well as the vaccination rate. Chan acknowledged the challenge before school leaders. “It’s no wonder that people are confused on what to do,” he told attendees.

For other safety measures, schools are no longer advised to quarantine whole classrooms when a student tests positive, and contact tracing is limited to those in direct contact with the infected person and that person’s household members. Contact is determined by setting, distance, and the number of minutes the infected person was with others. Schools are also encouraged to do the best they can in terms of maintaining social distancing. 

The conflicting public health guidance around masks and the spread of the Delta variant have some school leaders waiting until the Aug. 11 follow-up call with Chan and their August school board meetings before revising the reopening plans they recently filed with the state. 

​​The Manchester School District intended to start the year making masks optional. Spokesman Andrew Toland said the draft plan stated the school would follow CDC guidance in consultation with the city health department. He said the school board will discuss any plan changes when it meets Aug. 9. 

“When classes finished in June, we didn’t think we’d be in a situation in which we’re talking about another surge and universal masking,” he said. 

Manchester isn’t alone. 

“Fellow superintendents put out a Google doc to share what our masking decisions are,” said Dean Cascadden, superintendent of the Bow School District, which includes Dunbarton. “I went on and looked, and everyone is saying we are waiting to make a decision.” It’s likely to be controversial either way. 

“I think the biggest challenge is going to be this: We’ve basically gone the summer without masks on. If you wanted to wear a mask in school this summer, we would support that,” he said. “I think there are going to be some in the community who say there is no way we are ever going to put on masks again. Others will say, ‘We have unvaccinated people, and children can’t get the vaccine yet. We should have masks on.’ ” 

Regional school districts, such as Merrimack Valley, must monitor transmission rates across multiple towns. 

Superintendent Mark MacLean said he is planning to start the school year with masks optional. The district has created a matrix that tracks transmission in each of its five communities. (City and town new case counts are on the dashboard under “map.”)

Last week, two of Merrimack Valley’s towns (Webster and Salisbury) reported no new cases over the last 14 days; Penacook/Concord reported 16; and Loudon and Boscawen had between one and four, a count the state uses when there are fewer than five cases. Merrimack County’s transmission rate was put at “moderate,” and the vaccination rates in the towns ranged from 44.7 percent in Salisbury to 58.8 percent in Penacook/Concord.

“What we’ll do is kind of fine tune our protocol using the matrix we created and to establish when we flip masks,” MacLean said.

Some on the call expressed concern that weekend data isn’t logged until the start of the next week, making Monday morning safety decisions difficult. And others worry the transmission in a community will be well underway by the time test results appear on the dashboard.  

“I’m thinking once we see community transmission rising, we may only be closing the barn door after the horse is out,” a Seacoast school nurse wrote in a group chat message during the call.

Levin, whose students are too young for the vaccine, has decided to take a pause before circling back with the city’s health department for help making sense of the data. “Ever​y​body wants to be done with this, but it’s not done with us,” she said. “It’s like we are back where we were last year. It felt terrible last summer. And this year … fill in the blank.” 

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications. Email: [email protected]