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NH outlines guidance for schools’ face mask, COVID safety protocols

  • Kate Lancor, of the Vermont Agency of Transportation, District 4, checks the dryness of a school sign before moving on to repaint the sign on the other side of White River Valley Middle School on Route 12 in Bethel, Vt., Tuesday, August 10, 2021. The first day for students at the school is September 2. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/11/2021 9:32:40 PM
Modified: 8/11/2021 9:32:47 PM

WEST LEBANON — Students on the New Hampshire side of the Upper Valley should expect to wear masks when school starts if area districts adopt the state’s public health recommendations issued on Wednesday.

Officials recommend face masks for everybody inside schools and child care facilities when the level of community transmission of COVID-19 reaches “substantial” in the region, according to the state’s epidemiologist. All 10 New Hampshire counties currently have substantial spread, according an interactive map from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Sullivan County’s rate of spread was recently upgraded.)

The overall goal of mitigation strategies such as face masks “still is to get all kids back to in-person learning (while) minimizing the risk of COVID-19,” Dr. Benjamin Chan, New Hampshire’s state epidemiologist, said during a Zoom call Wednesday with Granite State school administrators.

Face masks also are recommended if transmission within an individual school or child care facility causes clusters of infections or a larger outbreak, Chan said. Mask use can be targeted and mask time can be limited if a single cluster or outbreak is small and confined.

The state’s recommendations are included in an online toolkit available for schools and child care facilities as they prepare to reopen for what school officials have said they hope will be a “normal” school year.

However, the arrival of school later this summer is coinciding with rising COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations across the country — including Vermont and New Hampshire — due to the more infectious delta variant, which has become the dominant strain of the illness in the United States.

In Vermont last week, the Agency of Education announced that all students and staff in Vermont schools would be required to wear masks for at least the first 10 days of school.

After that, masks wouldn’t be required for anyone 12 and older as long as 80% of those eligible in a given school have been vaccinated. (Children under age 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.)

On Wednesday, Chan suggested that New Hampshire schools also use the 80% vaccination threshold as a way to determine when mitigation measures such as distancing or face mask use might be relaxed.

He noted the state has adopted a “similar goal to what our neighboring state has put out there” and that it’s “potentially achievable (and) reasonable.”

There was some discussion on Wednesday’s call about how school officials would know whether they had reached the 80% mark. Beth Daly, chief of the New Hampshire Bureau of Infectious Disease Control, said that schools have the option of asking families to voluntarily disclose students’ vaccination status.

Chan emphasized that vaccine information should be used by school officials to inform mitigation measures and in “no way are we suggesting different recommendations” for students based on vaccination status.

In addition to offering guidance as to when to require masks, Chan also told school leaders to encourage residents in their communities to get vaccinated and to reach out to their regional public health networks to set up school-based vaccination clinics. In the Upper Valley, those networks include the Public Health Council of the Upper Valley and the Greater Sullivan County Public Health Network.

Chan said additional strategies for schools to suppress transmission include ventilation, hand washing and routine cleaning.

Chan urged schools to continue to have a “low bar” in terms of when to have students stay home sick — regardless of vaccination status — due to the types of COVID-19 symptoms that have become the most common. Students with a fever, runny nose, cough or other unexplained symptoms can expect to be asked to stay home and get tested for COVID-19.

Excluding students with mild symptoms from classrooms is important because children with COVID-19 often have only mild symptoms, Chan said.

In spite of New Hampshire’s lower levels of community transmission now than at the peak of the pandemic in the region last winter, there have been nine new outbreaks in child care and preschools since early July, Chan said. That’s more than the average during last winter’s peak of the pandemic in New Hampshire and “has raised concern on our part,” he said.

Of the 82 infections associated with the nine recent outbreaks, 25 have been in workers and 57 in children, he said.

In some cases, he said, staff waited six days before getting tested for symptoms. Given that the pandemic is ongoing, people shouldn’t treat new symptoms as a “usual cold,” he said. Instead, he said, anyone with cold-like symptoms should go home and get tested.

These days, there’s “no such thing as a usual cold,” he said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.

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