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With fall return looming, schools grapple with COVID protocols

  • Teacher Joan Fontaine works with second graders, from left, Carter Friesen, 8, Will Kolenda, 8, and Aadeline Loubier, 8, on a money math worksheet during the SAU #6 Summer Elementary Program at Maple Avenue Elementary School in Claremont, N.H., on Friday, July 30, 2021. The Claremont School Board plans to discuss COVID-19 precautions for the upcoming school year at its meeting on Wednesday. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • Tristan Brown distributes hot lunches to students during the SAU #6 Summer Elementary Program at Maple Avenue Elementary School in Claremont, N.H., on Friday, July 30, 2021. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

  • Students eat lunch during the SAU #6 Summer Elementary Program at Maple Avenue Elementary School in Claremont, N.H., on Friday, July 30, 2021. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/31/2021 9:44:36 PM
Modified: 7/31/2021 9:44:36 PM

WEST LEBANON — Upper Valley educators who hoped to return this fall to a “normal” school year free of pandemic restrictions may struggle to meet that goal.

New federal coronavirus guidelines for schools, rising infection rates due to the delta variant and widely varying vaccination rates across towns mean that precautions aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 could remain in place when students return to class in about a month.

In Vermont, officials are planning to issue statewide guidance for education settings as soon as this week.

But in New Hampshire, public health officials announced last month that they will not issue statewide mandates or guidelines for schools, leaving local officials free to adopt different approaches that take local conditions into consideration.

“What we’re thinking is as close to normal as we can have it,” Frank Sprague, chairman of the Claremont School Board, said of the district’s plans for COVID-19 precautions this fall.

Still, he said, there is much to be decided: “We’ve got to work out some fine details.”

One difficulty is how to keep students the 3 feet apart that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended. That is especially true when on buses, Sprague said.

On the upside, he said, the district can feel comfortable rolling back some of its “deep cleaning” procedures because the coronavirus does not appear to be commonly transmitted on surfaces. Similarly, entire classes will no longer be forced into quarantine as the result of a single positive case.

Sprague, a former Stevens High School principal, said the school board had a preliminary discussion about its plans for COVID-19 precautions at its meeting in late July and aims to take up the issue again at its meeting on Wednesday.

It’s “going to be interesting, that’s for sure,” he said, noting that whatever the board decides will have to undergo review by the teachers union.

The CDC, last week, announced it is now recommending that all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools wear masks indoors, regardless of their vaccination status. (Previous guidelines already required masks on school buses.) It’s unclear, however, whether local officials will adopt the new masking recommendations. Other issues such as maintaining distance between students, managing air quality and deciding what symptoms will get students sent home also must be addressed.

In Newport, N.H., where vaccination rates are lagging behind many other Upper Valley communities, COVID-19 planning for the fall also is underway but nothing has been finalized yet, Superintendent Brendan Minnihan said.

Requiring masks is under consideration following the CDC’s recommendation last Tuesday, he said.

“Once you have opened the door, so to speak, it’s really problematic,” he said of masks.

Masks have been optional during Newport’s summer school, which has gone fine, he said. He attributed the lack of problems to the relatively low rates of transmission of the virus at the moment.

Only about 50% of Newport residents have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Minnihan said he wasn’t sure how to factor the town’s vaccination rate into the school’s COVID-19 protocols.

“We’ve had low vaccine coverage since vaccines have been available,” Minnihan said.

Minnihan said he finds the lack of guidance at the state level to be “frustrating.”

“I don’t think you would necessarily have to give guidance to the whole state as an entity,” he said.

Instead, he suggested the state could offer color-coded categories so that when transmission increases or vaccination is below a certain level, schools could put other mitigation strategies into place.

Newport has plans to put CARES Act funding to use in upgrading schools’ heating and ventilation systems, but regulatory delays this summer mean that those improvements likely won’t come until next summer, Minnihan said.

That leaves Newport schools to rely on their existing HVAC systems, windows and some fans, he said.

“We’ll do the best we can,” he said.

Newport’s COVID-19 planning committee is set to meet Tuesday and present recommendations to the school board on Aug. 12, he said.

SAU 70, which includes schools in Hanover and Norwich, plans to maintain 3 feet of separation between students but will roll back some routine precautions such as temperature-taking, SAU 70 leaders said during a board meeting in late July.

“The emphasis this year will be on keeping everybody safe. … If you’re sick, stay home,” said Jamie Teague, the SAU 70’s finance director, who serves on the district’s COVID-19 committee.

Dr. Steve Chapman, the district physician for SAU 70, who directs the Boyle Community Pediatrics program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, said vaccination is the primary thing that communities can do to help schools to reopen as normally as possible this fall.

Secondarily, Chapman said, students and school employees ought to stay home when they’re sick, especially when they have a fever.

“That’s another important layer,” he said.

Speaking before the CDC’s mask announcement, Chapman said the use of masks in schools may depend on local transmission rates and may vary district by district this fall. Other important measures include maintaining good air flow in school buildings and staying outside when possible, and also continuing to keep hands clean by washing and sanitizing them.

Schools should do what they must to keep children in school in person five days a week, he said.

The “toll on families and on kids of being isolated and remote is tremendous,” he said, pointing to a “mental health epidemic” and a surge of young patients in need of psychiatric support, as well as attempting and even dying by suicide.

Lebanon Superintendent Joanne Roberts said she is waiting to make decisions about precautions this fall until Dr. Benjamin Chan, New Hampshire’s state epidemiologist, and the New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services host another conference call for school leaders on Aug. 11 from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. via Zoom.

“We will base decisions on DPHS recommendations and local COVID data,” Roberts said. “We encourage individuals who can be vaccinated to do so.”

Almost 74% of Lebanon residents have been fully vaccinated, and more than 79% have had at least one dose.

Perhaps more importantly for school officials, nearly 74% of 12- to 19-year-olds in Lebanon have had at least one dose of a vaccine.

In a recent letter to the Lebanon school community, Roberts said that Lebanon’s relatively high rates of vaccination “will help to keep our community protected.”

Across the Connecticut River, Tom Debalsi, Hartford’s superintendent, said his district is waiting to establish fall COVID-19 protocols until it gets word from the state, which he expects “in early August.”

Overall, cases of COVID-19 in the Twin States are low, with New Hampshire reporting a seven-day test positivity rate of 2.4% and Vermont 1.8%.

Nationally, the Twin States have relatively high vaccination rates. More than 75% of Vermonters have so far had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while almost 65% of Granite Staters have, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data tracker. Those percentages are from the total population, including people who are ineligible for vaccination like children under age 12.

Still, some epidemiologists say vaccination rates need to reach 90% as the more infectious delta variant advances and as children remain ineligible for shots.

But some Upper Valley communities, including Claremont and Newport, have vaccination rates below 50%.

“Schools should start with the goal of keeping kids safe (and) physically present,” said Chan, the state’s epidemiologist, during a July 21 video call with about 500 of the state’s school leaders.

Chan outlined some mitigation tools recommended by the CDC that schools can choose to deploy to reduce transmission of COVID-19: promoting vaccination; requiring face masks in indoor settings; physical distancing and grouping children in cohorts; screening for symptoms; increasing ventilation; and hand-washing.

But because cases affecting schools this past year have reflected transmission within the community, not driven it, he said, “This needs to be a larger community effort.”

Chan described vaccination as “probably the most important action that people can take to protect their own health and (prevent) the need for mitigation measures.”

Some question whether leaving decisions related to COVID-19 precautions up to local districts is wise. The communities with lower vaccination rates may also be those that are less likely to support other mitigation strategies, according to Anne Sosin, a policy fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College.

“The challenge with that,” she said, “is it doesn’t insulate them from local politics and preferences.”

Information about vaccination sites is available online at vaccines.gov.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213. Staff writer Alex Hanson also contributed to this report.




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