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Petition seeks five-day in-person schooling in Lebanon

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/11/2020 9:45:01 PM
Modified: 8/11/2020 9:44:55 PM

LEBANON — Parents, including some public health experts, are asking the Lebanon School Board to reconsider its decision to reopen the city’s schools using a hybrid model that combines in-person and online learning.

Scientific evidence and recent studies, they say, show that the district’s students and teachers can safely return to classes a full five days a week, so long as precautions are in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Lebanon’s also seen relatively few coronavirus cases, meaning it’s better positioned to fully reopen than school districts located in the nation’s hot spots, according to an online petition that had garnered more than 280 signatures by Tuesday afternoon.

“With only 20 cases since March in our community, with only four cases currently in Lebanon and no cases in any of our bordering districts, is this model warranted?” Paul Barr, a health services researcher at the Dartmouth Institute, asked of Lebanon’s current proposal.

Barr’s conclusion, and those of seven other doctors and health experts who co-signed the petition, is that Lebanon is being overly cautious in its approach and could in fact do more harm by keeping the district’s 1,648 students home.

“We know that a hybrid model will have legitimate and significant impacts on children’s physical and mental health, as well as adverse effects on parents, including job losses,” said the petition, which was spearheaded by Barr, the father of a rising third grader.

However, school officials argue the hybrid approach remains the best way forward, largely because of uncertainty over if and how the virus will spread in the coming weeks.

“In Lebanon, we have seen our parks and recreation programs, as well as many local camps, canceled this summer and access to municipal services is still limited,” School Board Chairwoman Wendy Hall wrote in a letter to the community Tuesday. “Opening schools may be the first significant step in having larger-scale community contact for some families.”

Hall went on to say the Upper Valley will see many changes as Kimball Union Academy and Dartmouth College both bring some students back to campus — potentially drawing people from all over the country — and Dartmouth Coach resumes service to Boston and New York City.

“Phasing in allows us to be responsive and agile as we evaluate how increased community mobility and contact impacts the rates of COVID-19 transmission in Lebanon,” she wrote.

Lebanon’s schools plan to reopen Sept. 8 using what officials call an “A/B model” where the student population is split in two.

One group would attend in-person classes two days per week, while another would attend the other two. On Wednesdays, all students learn remotely.

The school district also will require students and teachers to wear face masks during most of the day and students will be spaced at least 3 feet apart during instruction.

Barr said there are several problems with this model, including an increased risk to children who may turn to private learning options while not physically in schools.

Several organizations in the Upper Valley are considering offering all-day child care for school-age children whose schools will be offering remote instruction.

“These children will return to school much more exposed than they would have in a model that has more consistent in-person schooling,” Barr said. “This results in a much greater risk of COVID-19 spread to our teachers and students.”

He also pointed out that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the state Division of Public Health Services advise school districts in communities with low case counts to reopen under a five-day schedule.

Recent guidance from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia recommends in-person learning for towns and cities where under 5% of people test positive for COVID-19, and Lebanon’s rates remain far below that figure, according to Barr.

“If we cannot return to in-person schooling now, when will we ever return?” he asked.

Dr. Kim Gifford, a pediatrician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, said Tuesday that most people will go through their day without encountering an infected person. Even if they did, she said, masks, social distancing and hand-washing all help to lower rates of transmission.

“All of this means that on most days there will be almost no people in a given school who may be transmitting the virus and anyone who might be infected is likely doing at least something to prevent the spread of infection,” Gifford, who has a daughter at Lebanon Middle School, wrote in an email.

She argued that the effects of remote learning on children’s social, developmental and emotional health are more pressing.

“Nearly every day in clinic, I see children who have had thoughts about harming themselves, which has become worse with social isolation,” Gifford wrote. “I see many children every day who struggle with managing their learning remotely, which is much worse for young children, those who do not have a suitable space at home to do school, and those with poor electronic connectivity.”

Andrew Gamble, president of Lebanon’s teachers union, said Monday that the petitioners rely on “solid, really good research” to argue for the reopening of schools. But, he said, there are other logistical issues that planners took into consideration when looking at the start of the school year.

For instance, while administrators planned the layout of each classroom and space, Gamble said aisles and walkways will still be “tight.” Transportation, meals and other operations also pose additional problems, he added.

The hybrid model will “get the kids accustomed to the hallways, the limited number of people who can be in a bathroom, how to use both the software and the hardware that’s going to be used in classes,” Gamble said, adding that the plan could be revisited in the coming weeks. “I think it’s important that we aim to be flexible, open-minded and be able to pivot and move quickly.”

Hall, the School Board chairwoman, took a similar approach, saying the hybrid model represents the first phase of back-to-school.

“I think it’s exciting that the science is saying we can be in school at any level, and I think we’re incredibly fortunate in the Upper Valley up to this point to have low rates,” she said in an interview Monday. “Hopefully this will just be our first phase and we’ll all be back to school.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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