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Valley school districts plot fall return

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/6/2020 9:20:30 PM
Modified: 7/6/2020 9:20:27 PM

LEBANON — With a tumultuous school year in the rearview mirror, many Upper Valley school districts have turned their attention toward reopening in the fall.

Urged by state officials to make in-person instruction the norm, school administrators say they’re using summer to plan for a safe return of students.

In some cases, districts have enlisted the help of teachers and nurses, who are charged with determining how to best handle the transition to and from remote learning while the coronavirus pandemic remains a threat.

“I think some folks are fearful about what the start of the school year looks like as far as coming back to in-person instruction,” said Jamie Kinnarney, superintendent of the White River Valley Supervisory Union. “When the unknown’s out there, that’s where rumors happen and that’s when fear can occur.”

Kinnarney formed a task force to plan guidelines for the union’s eight schools in June, shortly before Vermont Education Secretary Dan French announced the state’s planned return to in-person instruction for the 2020-21 school year.

The White Rive Valley task force has conducted surveys and is in the process of building a blueprint for the first six weeks back in class, Kinnarney said.

The group also spends time talking about social distancing, transportation and, if need be, the transition back to remote learning in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

The supervisory union — which provides education services to the Upper Valley towns of Bethel, Chelsea, Royalton, Sharon, Strafford and Tunbridge — hopes to have a handbook ready by August, Kinnarney said in a phone interview Monday.

“What we’re looking to do is provide guidance so that schools aren’t out there trying to figure this out alone,” he said.

The Dresden Interstate School District, which operates schools in Norwich and Hanover, is taking a similar route, with a task force preparing to send out surveys later this month.

“We will be asking you to let us know your level of comfort with a live return to school along with needs for child care, transportation, and technology,” Superintendent Jay Badams said in a letter to parents Monday. “We know that even if we were to open schools ‘normally,’ many of our staff and families will have health considerations that may preclude them from participating fully.”

Lebanon also intends to form a group of teachers and staff to prepare for in-person learning, said Superintendent Joanne Roberts. But in the meantime, administrators and district staff already are working to figure out logistics for the coming school year.

One of their current tasks is determining how social distancing could affect instruction.

If New Hampshire mandates six feet of separation between pupils, Lebanon’s four school buildings may not be able to accommodate the district’s roughly 1,680 students, Roberts told city officials in an email late last month.

She recently inquired about moving classes to civic spaces, and City Manager Shaun Mulholland has offered the use of City Hall and the Lebanon Opera House, but those won’t be ready until construction wraps up in October.

“We could literally take rows of chairs, unscrew those and move them,” Mulholland said Monday about the performing arts space.

However, there is concern moving students could prove more trouble than its worth.

“The time it takes to transport students to and from other sites makes these types of options not very realistic,” Roberts said in an email Monday. “We are waiting for the (state) to provide school districts direct guidance for reopening schools before heading in any specific direction.”

But New Hampshire districts, like Lebanon, may have to wait before direct orders come from Gov. Chris Sununu or the state Department of Education.

The DOE’s 12-person task force wrapped up its work crafting recommendations last week, and school reopening guidelines aren’t expected until later this summer, the Keene Sentinel reported.

And although the recommendations call for social distancing and altered transportation plans, they are no specific instructions on how those could be accomplished.

The Lebanon School Board in June sent a letter to the task force requesting “that school leaders receive information/orders/guidance well in advance.” That’s mainly because of the logistics required to plan for in-person, remote or hybrid teaching model next year, the board said.

“In order to proactively plan for the fall, the Lebanon SAU Leadership Team is considering the many complex components of reopening our schools safely in conjunction with our ability to provide instruction at the highest level possible,” the board said in the letter.

Tim Camerato can be reached at or 603-727-3223.

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