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Lebanon schools stick with plan to reopen fully

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/15/2020 11:46:16 AM
Modified: 10/15/2020 10:07:49 PM

LEBANON — The city’s schools are moving forward with plans to reopen for five days a week of in-person learning later this month, with officials opting to stay the course after two students recently tested positive for COVID-19.

School Board members voted, 5-4, on Wednesday night to maintain last month’s decision to fully reopen schools on Oct. 26, saying it will prevent confusion for parents and teachers already planning the transition away from the district’s current hybrid approach.

Students now are in school two days a week and learning remotely the remaining three. Families also have the option for fully remote learning, with about a quarter of them choosing that teaching method, which will continue through at least the rest of 2020.

Wednesday’s vote killed a proposal to instead move to four days a week of in-person learning, which supporters said would have allowed teachers more time to plan and work through problems midweek.

“I feel like we can’t just keep going back and forth,” School Board Vice Chairwoman Jenica Nelan said at the end of a nearly three-hour discussion on the school reopening plans. “We’ve got to make a decision and stick to it for the sanity of all of our administrators and teachers.”

School and public health officials assured the School Board during the meeting, held both online and inside the Lebanon Middle School gymnasium, that precautions will be in place to protect children returning to normal class schedules.

Teachers and administrators are already preparing the schools for the move, which will require children to utilize more space as their numbers nearly double, Superintendent Joanne Roberts said.

For example, she said, officials last week game-planned travel procedures, reviewed custodial shifts and developed plans for moving desks.

Officials also pointed to low case numbers of the novel coronavirus both in Lebanon and Grafton County as reasons to move toward five-day-a-week in-person learning.

“The board made a decision based on data as well as other aspects,” Roberts said while pointing to state metrics on the virus and school openings.

As of Wednesday evening, there were fewer than five active cases of the virus reported in Lebanon, according to New Hampshire’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Grafton County’s transmission level also is listed as “minimal,” meeting New Hampshire’s guidelines of full in-person learning. (Vermont recently limited travel to and from Grafton County to only essential travel — including commuting to work, getting medical care, picking up groceries or medicine and attending school — after the county’s estimated case count rose above 400 per 1 million people. Vermont requires a quarantine period for nonessential travel.)

However, some parents and school staffers worried that the positive tests of students last week, and subsequent one-day closure of the city’s schools, could be a preview of what’s to come.

School officials late last week learned of two COVID-19 cases involving students at Lebanon High School and Lebanon Middle School. In-person classes, practices and games were canceled last Friday as a precautionary measure. Students were out of school for Columbus Day and returned on Tuesday, once test results for other students came back negative.

Lebanon parent Holly Maher told the School Board that a child of hers was one of the two to test positive for COVID-19 “despite our family strictly adhering to CDC and public health guidelines,” she said, referring to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I’m sharing this with you tonight to emphasize that the hybrid model works best for students and staff during the global pandemic,” Maher said.

Because students are only in school part time and socially distance while there, “the possible exposure and contact tracing required last week was minimized,” she said. “And I am truly grateful for that.”

Maher, a nurse at Lebanon’s Hanover Street School, warned that under the upcoming five-day learning model, children will sometimes be placed 3 feet apart, mask breaks may not happen or would occur less frequently and students will need to be separated while eating.

“I want students and staff to stay healthy. I want children to be in school with teachers and their peers,” she said. “And it’s the hybrid model that will keep our students in the classroom with their teachers.”

But Dr. Kim Gifford, a pediatrician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, argued that precautions — such as mask-wearing, social distancing, staying home when sick and hand-washing — provide layers of protection against the virus.

It’s also important to keep children in school full time to aid their development and mental health, she said.

“When they miss development, they can’t get that time back,” Gifford, the mother of two Lebanon middle schoolers, said of shortened hours with teachers. “And schools are chances for our older kids to have social connections with other adults in their lives who can support them.”

State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan, who took no stance on the school opening debate, added that the majority of new COVID-19 cases are centered in southern New Hampshire. Most of those occur because of gatherings and social events, he said, not class time.

“Speaking broadly from across the state, schools have been effective at preventing transmission within schools,” said Chan, the father of two Lebanon middle schoolers.

Since New Hampshire schools reopened six weeks ago, there were 151 students and school staffers diagnosed with the coronavirus statewide in 94 different schools, Chan said. Yet there have been only a handful of clusters totaling just over a dozen people, he said.

Ultimately, School Board members were told that however they chose to reopen schools, whether it be a continued hybrid model or more in-person classes, they needed to stick to a plan.

Principals throughout the night talked of the tough choices they were making and worries that moving between plans would prove to be a logistical nightmare because of transportation woes, the layout of schools and families’ need to plan ahead.

“You really need to choose an in-person instructional model, whatever that’s going to be. Whether that’s the hybrid model that we’re in, whether that’s a five-day in-person model or a four-one model,” Lebanon Middle School Principal John D’Entremont said. “You need to choose what is going to be your in-person instructional model.”

The School Board’s next meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 28.

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




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