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Lebanon School Board seeks plan for return to full-time in-person learning

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/23/2020 9:41:59 PM
Modified: 9/24/2020 9:37:03 PM

LEBANON — City schools are planning to return to five days a week of in-person instruction, although it will likely be weeks before Lebanon’s teachers and school employees can transition from the district’s current hybrid learning model.

The Lebanon School Board voted, 6-3, Wednesday night to have Superintendent Joanne Roberts draft plans for students’ return to five-day classroom instruction with a target date of Monday, Oct. 26. Those plans are due next week.

Under the board’s decision, families uncomfortable with the move would be able to continue with remote learning for their children.

Board members said they approved the return to five-day in-person classes largely because the transmission of COVID-19 within the Upper Valley remains low.

“The level of community transmission in nearly all of the state, including Grafton County and all of its surrounding counties, is minimal,” board member Richard Milius said nearing the end of a more than two-hour meeting.

Milius added that for weeks public health experts have said it’s safe for students to come back full time. Schools, he said, also provide children refuge and stability.

“We know that students make optimal academic progress when they’re in school five days a week,” Milius said. “Some students are doing well remotely and a large number are not ... We know there are some homes in Lebanon where no learning happens on remote days. That’s just a fact of life.”

The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance earlier this month that calls for in-person learning so long as the number of new COVID-19 infections in a community remains under 50 per 100,000 people and schools see “zero or sporadic cases.”

Lebanon meets both of those criteria. No cases have been reported inside the school system since students returned Sept. 8, and Grafton County saw 15.6 cases per 100,000 people in the last 14 days.

A handful of communities on the Seacoast, Nashua and Manchester are the only places DHHS recommends either remote of hybrid learning. However, teachers and nurses cautioned against the move away from hybrid learning Wednesday, saying it’s too soon to gauge whether the start of the school year can be deemed a success.

The current model sees students broken up into two groups, each attending class two days a week and learning online the remaining three.

While screening is catching students who show coronavirus symptoms before they come to school, nurses are seeing an uptick in phone calls and emails as they check in with parents and answer questions, the school district’s nurses wrote in a letter to the School Board.

“We are entering the fall months when we historically and routinely see cases of asthma, colds, the flu and allergies increase,” the nurses said. “We fully expect to see more students during the next several months who are exhibiting symptoms that fall under the COVID symptom list.”

The nurses went on to say the “hybrid model is working well for students, families and staff” and that it would be “premature” to make drastic changes when students are in overall good health.

Teachers also remain skeptical about the shift away from hybrid learning, with about half of those who answered a recent school district survey saying they would be “uncomfortable” making a change.

About 22% said they’re “very comfortable” or “comfortable” with transitioning to five-day in-person classes.

Tom Battles, a special educator at Lebanon Middle School, told the School Board that growing case numbers in southern New Hampshire combined with the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday worried him.

“An outbreak, I think, would result in a fully remote scenario, which would truly be unfortunate,” he said.

School Board members say they weighed those concerns with those of parents who offer mixed reviews of the hybrid model. Families attending Wednesday’s meeting complained of ongoing technical issues, trouble finding child care and their children’s desire to be back with friends.

“In our house, in particular, it’s created a lot of challenges,” parent Connor Rockwell said. “I think there’s a time and a place for it, but, as a permanent structure or something that would last an entire school year, I just don’t think that it’s going to work for the majority of families.”

Parent Aimee Greeley added that she felt people were making decisions based on fear, either fear that children will get sick or miss out on education.

“It would be nice to hear the School Board come up with a model that says, ‘If we had x number of cases,’ or, ‘These are the scenarios we will go to full remote,’ ” she said, adding that such guidelines would help prevent parents and teachers from worrying about what’s coming week-to-week.

Nearly half of the school district employees who responded to its survey said it would take four weeks to transition to five-day in-person learning, while about 28% estimated the move would take three weeks.

Only about a quarter of those surveyed said it would be done in two weeks’ time.

The undertaking will see administrators reexamine almost every facet of student life — from morning bus routes to classroom layout and lunchtime procedures — as they attempt to follow proper social distancing procedures.

For instance, school officials predict Lebanon Middle School will see its daily student population rise to 383 students a day, up from about 191 now. Class sizes would similarly double from an average of eight children to 16.

That means the middle school would need eight to nine buses dedicated solely to its students (it currently shares routes with Lebanon High School) as only 26 children are allowed on a bus at the same time.

And because space would be tighter inside classrooms and hallways, there would be fewer opportunities for mask breaks. Lunch also would be spread into the gymnasium, health room, family consumer science room and computer lab, Roberts told the school community Wednesday.

Similar changes would be planned for the Mount Lebanon, Hanover Street and Lebanon High schools to accommodate the influx of students, she said.

Roberts said the school district will now survey parents to see whether their students will return to class or turn to fully remote instruction. The answers, she said, will help determine how many students to prepare for within the school buildings.

The School Board is scheduled to next discuss reopening plans at 6 p.m. Friday.

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




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