Amid another COVID surge, the state’s schools brace for the challenging winter ahead

By: - December 10, 2021 5:48 am
An empty school hallway

The House Municipal and County Services Committee voted Tuesday to recommend passage of the bill, 10-9.  (Michael Loccisano | Getty Images)

The post-Thanksgiving COVID-19 surge is more than theoretical in Bow. 

On Tuesday, 20 children in the elementary school were home from school after testing positive for COVID-19 or reporting a family member in their home who did, Superintendent Dean Cascadden announced to parents. In the middle and high schools, the numbers were 14 and 15, respectively.

It was the highest total the school had recorded this year. “We are running a little high this week,” Cascadden said in an interview. 

New Hampshire’s rising COVID-19 case numbers have not spared its school districts, administrators say, and student and teacher absences due to the coronavirus are rising. 

As the state rolls out its new at-home testing program intended to help families take prevention measures, schools are seeking out tests of their own. But to administrators, testing staff and students is only one aspect of the ongoing battle. 

“The bigger challenge that we are hearing about right now is not getting the kids tested as much, in this current moment; it’s that so many children are testing positive,” said Becky Wilson, director of governmental relations at the New Hampshire School Board Association. 

Schools are still prioritizing in-person classes. Winter sports are moving forward, and no schools have returned to remote learning. But the rise in cases after Thanksgiving and the specter of a post-Christmas spike are weighing on some school officials. 

As districts work to set up testing processes, some are further along than others. Goffstown, for example, already has on-campus testing opportunities for students, Wilson said.

Others are still jumping through hoops. 

Bow applied for the Safer at Schools screening program relatively late in the school year, Cascadden said, so the tests are still not ready. Schools applying for the tests must fill out a “CLIA certificate,” named after the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments of 1988, allowing them to officially connect with laboratories to accept test results. Districts must draw up procedures, coordinate with laboratories, and work with nursing staff over how to best implement the tests. 

And, importantly, the districts must create an online portal to allow parental consent for the tests. Bow is still working on its digital system, and it can’t administer the tests until it finishes. 

“We’re almost ready to roll it out,” Cascadden said.

As schools work to get their school-administered testing processes up and running, parents have been forced to secure tests for their children. When a child presents COVID symptoms at school, school nurses often order that they go home to quarantine; only a negative test result will allow them to return. 

The state’s new at-home test kit program should help in Bow, Cascadden says. But intense interest in the program – and a quirk that sent all applicants eight tests at once – have made those new tests scarce. The program’s supply was exhausted in the first 24 hours of operation.

For parents and administrators, the transition period has required patience. Cascadden says he hopes that the addition of the rapid tests to school grounds, once fully operational, won’t lead to complacency. 

“The biggest thing still is we don’t want kids to come to school if they’re sick, or staff,” Cascadden said. “You don’t want people to come into school if they’re symptomatic in any way shape or form. We’re hoping that people don’t come in saying ‘Hey, we’ll attend the school because I know they have the tests there so we’ll take a test.’” 

Meanwhile, not all school districts are accepting the at-home tests. 

Administrators at Pelham have decided rapid COVID-19 tests will not be used to allow a student to return to school. In order to re-enter after isolating, students must show a PCR test with negative results, Superintendent Chip McGee said. It’s a policy that the district has carried since the last school year. 

“We don’t use them,” McGee said of the at-home tests. “They’re a great tool for family and staff to get a sense of what’s going on. But it hasn’t moved the needle a lot for us as a district.”

For families whose children have symptoms, that means finding a provider who will administer the test and certify the result. The process can take anywhere from one day to several. 

Pelham does participate in the Safer at Schools Screening program, and has PCR tests available on campus. Those could in theory be offered to families whose children show symptoms, saving them a search on their own. But McGee said the Department of Health and Human Services has told districts that those tests may be used only to test asymptomatic students. 

“We have asked,” he said. “We’ve all followed and said: ‘Wait wait wait, can’t we?’ And the answer is no, we can’t.” 

Districts have diverged on other masking decisions as well. In Bow, Cascadden’s administration did not apply for all types of testing available under the state program, for instance. District leaders decided to forgo the asymptomatic tests offered by the administration. 

That part of the program was designed to allow schools to test every student in school at least once a month in order to detect outbreaks. But amid record hospitalizations across the state, Cascadden says preventative measures like asymptomatic testing are no longer useful.

“In my mind, I know there’s COVID circulating in the school environment,” Cascadden said. “What would you do with that information?” 

Meanwhile, masks are still required for students in Bow through eighth grade. And school officials are considering strengthening the “cohort” system – the process by which children are kept with the same cluster of peers throughout the school day – in the elementary school. 

Besides its stricter testing requirements, Pelham isn’t taking drastic measures to quell rising infections. Student and staff cases have been rising just as in other districts in recent weeks, McGee said. But the case numbers haven’t hit the district’s self-imposed thresholds to consider remote learning.

For that to happen, the transmission rate would have to hit a much higher level, and staff and student absences would have to be substantial – up to 15 percent in the student body, McGee said.

Pelham is taking other long-term measures. Its schools have carried out a group vaccination of 5- to 11-year-olds; the second shot is scheduled for Friday. Around 100 students have participated in that effort. 

“We’ve all agreed here we’re gonna fight like hell,” he said. “If we can do it safely, we’re gonna stay open.”

As winter approaches, some school leaders are still eying a proposed rule before the State Board of Education that would rescind the power of districts to implement school-wide remote learning. The proposed rule, which received a hearing in November and could be voted on later this month, would allow schools to offer COVID-related remote learning as an option for families that wanted it but would require in-person learning for families that didn’t.

“The main message that we’re hearing from members is that they would like to maintain the ability to make the decision at the local level,” Wilson said. “That is the message that we’re getting.”

In Bow, for now at least, Cascadden says that means doing what he can to keep the school doors open. 

“There is kind of a surge going on right now where we’re just trying to weather it,” he said. “Keep the kids in school as much as possible and keep things as normal as possible.”

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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.