Here’s what you need to know about schools reopening amid another COVID surge

By: - August 13, 2021 5:53 am
A bulletin board in an elementary school classroom

Are mask mandates necessary for schools? According to state epidemiologist Dr. Ben Chan, the answer is probably yes. (Michael Loccisano | Getty Images)

New Hampshire is weeks away from the start of the 2021-2022 school year, and school boards across the state are wrestling with a crucial operational question: Are mask mandates necessary?

On Wednesday, state epidemiologist Dr. Ben Chan gave a clear answer: Probably yes. 

During a briefing to schools and child care providers Wednesday, Chan said the situation will vary from school to school, but that any school in counties with “substantial” transmission should consider universal mask mandates.

As of Thursday, that standard would capture schools in all 10 of New Hampshire’s counties, according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services dashboard

But the bigger picture when it comes to school preparations for COVID-19 is fluid and complicated. Here’s what you need to know. 

What is the state’s general recommendation on masks in schools?

The recommendation from New Hampshire state officials is clear: If a school is in a county with a “substantial” rate of COVID-19 transmission – as defined by the state – then the school should consider implementing a universal indoor mask-wearing mandate. That standard was set out in a rubric distributed to schools this week and presented by Chan on Wednesday. 

If a school is in a county without a substantial level of transmission, then it likely doesn’t need to mandate masks, Chan says. But if that same school registers a small cluster of COVID cases, or a larger outbreak, the school may need to either implement a targeted mask mandate or a universal one, depending on the severity of the outbreak.

The state’s recommendations differ from the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Aug. 5, the CDC suggested that all teachers, staff, and students in all American schools wear masks indoors, “regardless of vaccination status.”

New Hampshire’s mindset is more targeted, Chan says. “DHHS recommends face-mask use based on a local assessment of risk from COVID-19 in the community,” he said. 

Are there exceptions to the recommendations?

Yes. For schools whose counties have substantial transmission but have implemented strict mitigation measures, such as outdoor activities and physical distancing, or whose school district has a “high level” of vaccination, universal mask wearing may not be necessary, Chan says.

Still, those cases are exceptions, and are still subject to the whims of COVID clusters or outbreaks in schools, which could mean the district should consider masking up again, according to DHHS. 

“If you have good implementation of other mitigation measures, good physical distancing, (and) you’re still only seeing sporadic cases of COVID-19 without evidence of facility transmission, you could still very reasonably make face masks optional with all of the caveats to that,” Chan said.

How is ‘substantial’ transmission determined?

The New Hampshire school mask guidelines rely on a clear metric: “substantial” COVID-19 community transmission. 

But New Hampshire and the CDC differ on how to define that metric. The CDC, which uses four categories of transmission – low, moderate, substantial, and high – counts data on COVID-19 test results over the last seven days. DHHS, which divides county transmission into minimal, moderate, and substantial, counts data over the last 14 days. The CDC and New Hampshire also use different types of tests when determining their numbers.

The end result: The tallies of counties affected by state masking guidance can change depending on the agency consulted.

On Thursday, the distinction didn’t matter. All 10 counties have been marked by both the CDC and New Hampshire’s DHHS as “substantial” or “high.” 

Do state officials have any plans to mandate masks in schools?

No. Since the expiration of New Hampshire’s COVID-19 state of emergency – which Gov. Chris Sununu ended in June – neither the governor nor the state’s Department of Health and Human Services has the authority to issue a mask mandate, or to direct schools to take other mitigation measures. 

Unlike in March 2020, when the state briefly ordered all school districts to close for in-person learning, the suggestions on mask usage made by DHHS are voluntary.

The overall goal, Chan says, is to return all students to in-person learning; the mask mandate suggestions are meant to help implement that goal.

“It’s up to the local school district or child care program or business or organization to decide how to implement the recommendations based on their local situation,” Chan said.

Still, Chan admitted that passing a mask mandate and explaining it to students and their families are two different challenges. 

“I think it’s important to communicate with your community about the two different important purposes of face masks,” Chan said. “. . . One is to protect the person wearing the face mask. So face masks are used as personal protective equipment, or PPE. But face masks also help to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from the person wearing the face mask to others.”

Should schools factor in local vaccination rates when deciding whether to mandate masks?

Officials with DHHS say schools should prioritize transmission levels in their communities when deciding whether to implement mask mandates – not vaccination rates. But DHHS has begun releasing town-by-town vaccination data, Chan says, and he encouraged school districts to use that data as part of their planning and decision-making.

An ideal goal for any community, Chan added, is 80 percent vaccination. 

In the meantime, schools should do what they deem necessary to promote vaccinations, Chan added. 

What are the signs of COVID-19 in children?

As schools head back to the classrooms, teachers and administrators will need to keep a close eye on potential outbreaks, Chan said. Knowing the symptoms to look for in children is critical.

There’s a simple rule, Chan says: Any cold-like symptoms in children should be treated as a potential case of COVID-19.

“We are in the midst of a pandemic, and there is no such thing as a ‘usual cold,’” the department stressed in its presentation. 

Testing and contact tracing data suggests the most common symptoms in kids under 19 are a fever, a runny nose, a cough, and a headache.

Parents of students with symptoms should not let their children return to the facility until they have been tested, Chan added. 

For parents of students with symptoms who do not wish to test their children, schools may bar the students from returning to the school for 10 days, DHHS officials added. 

Can my child be asked their vaccination status?

Yes. During his presentation, some school administrators pointed to complaints from parents over the school’s attempt to ask their child their vaccination status. Parents alleged that the question was a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. 

But that suggestion is false, Chan and other officials emphasized. Schools are within their rights to inquire into vaccination status; students – and families – are also able to decline to answer.

What other mitigation measures are recommended for schools?

The state is still recommending that schools implement maximum physical distancing where possible, including at least three feet of physical separation in classrooms, and eight to 10 feet of distance in situations involving heavy breathing, such as choir or group fitness.

Schools are encouraged to establish “cohorts” of students – clusters that can be kept together through the day to minimize indoor mingling and isolate potential breakouts. 

And the department continues to urge schools to enroll in the Safer at School Screening Program (SASS), a federally funded program that provides rapid antigen testing to schools to try to sample asymptomatic students and monitor whether new cases emerge undetected. 

In practice, schools across the state have taken widely different approaches, particularly around mask requirements. DHHS has recommended only that schools stick to data when making decisions.

“When the level of community transmission is high or substantial, we have recommended that everybody take steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and when the level of community transmission is low, we have attempted to be permissive and allow people to feel free to pull back on mitigation measures for everybody,” Chan said. 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.