LACONIA — As the days tick away toward the end of summer, there is trepidation among teachers who want to return to their classrooms in September but are concerned about the health of students, families and themselves.
Gov. Chris Sununu has put out a guidance document that discusses social distancing, screening for COVID-19, use of masks, but leaves local school districts with wide latitude on how to proceed.
On Wednesday, National Education Association-New Hampshire released its own set of principles for reopening schools.
“No one wants to see our children back in school more than us. No one,” NEA-New Hampshire President Megan Tuttle said. “The same instinct that moves an educator to go to any length to protect their students, is also telling us that rushing our children back into classrooms, hallways and buses until we know it is safe, is clearly not the best thing to do.”
The association calls for additional money and staff, smaller classes, more bus capacity to enable physical distancing, more nurses and counselors and support professionals. It also says there needs to be an “unwavering commitment to supply students and all employees with the appropriate PPE and following health and safety protocols.”
The group also said the heating and air condition systems need to be examined and upgraded, if necessary, to ensure proper air circulation.
For purposes of Worker's Compensation, if a teacher comes down with COVlD-19, there should be a presumption the teacher contracted the disease on the job, the NEA-NH recommends. Emergency responders are afforded this presumption.
Deb Tivey, president of the Laconia Education Association and a 6th-grade language arts and social studies teacher, said many details of the return to classrooms are still being worked out.
Teachers are concerned.
“It’s not that they don’t want to go back into the traditional form of educating students, but they want it to be safe for students and their families and our staff,” she said.
She said she and Laconia School Superintendent Steve Tucker speak daily, sometimes several times a day, and multiple committees are working on logistics.
Tivey said that with proper use of masks, social distancing and smaller group sizes, students should be able to return to the classroom in a safe fashion.
She said COVID-19 case numbers in the state are good.
“Let’s keep them that way,” she said.
The disease has claimed 400 lives since the start of the pandemic, mostly in southern New Hampshire and mostly involving nursing home residents.
Distance learning is not optimal and is not for everyone.
“Learning is a social event and it’s not done in isolation,” she said.
“For some students it worked out very well,” she said. “Some were very successful, others not so much.”
There have been published reports of large numbers of students in some districts failing to participate in online learning. Tivey said efforts were made locally to prevent this from happening.
She related her experience as a teacher.
“We never lost track of our students,” she said. “We took attendance. If we didn't hear from them, a team of educators tried to make contact. We were always there to support students and families.”
Students were given laptops to ensure they could participate in remote learning. Connectivity issues were worked through, she said.
There are just so many unanswered questions, it’s hard to say what school will look like in the fall. She listed a couple.
What if out-of-state visitors drive a spike in case numbers? What if an increase in COVID-19 cases coincides with a bad flu season?
“It’s not a one-shot deal,” she said. “We just have to keep re-assessing and evaluating and do what makes the most sense.”
Steve Roberts is an 8th-grade science teacher and soccer coach at Inter-Lakes Middle/High School.
He cautions against overconfidence about the disease’s progression in New Hampshire.
Roberts points to an uptick in case numbers in the south, where hot weather often forces people into air-conditioned indoor places in the summer. What will happen when cold weather forces people indoors in New Hampshire?
“You know we’re in trouble when the president, who has been pooh-poohing the whole thing is now wearing a mask,” he said. “I have some trepidation.”
Just like schools close on some bad-weather days to promote safety, there may be times when a disease outbreak requires students to stay out of the classroom, he said.
He predicted his Inter-Lakes would settle on a sort of hybrid model that could include a mix of classroom and online instruction.
Roberts said that like professional sports, athletics will be disrupted.
“How can you have contact sports with a school from another town?” he asked.
Some students and some teachers may not feel comfortable returning. Some may have underlying conditions that would make them vulnerable to serious complications if they get the virus.
“We have some students with immune deficiencies, and it’s tough for them on a normal day,” he said. “A lot of students live with elderly people, grandparents. The students will be mixing with a whole population of different people and could carry the virus.”
For all these reasons, there will have to be provisions for online learning, he said.
Roberts said one idea that is getting a lot of attention is project-based learning, or the so-called “flipped classroom,” or active learning, which minimizes lectures or direct instruction in favor of freeing class time for activities and projects that can promote greater understanding of the material.
Instruction in the early grades may prove difficult in the time of COVID-19, he said. How do you teach children to read and write at a distance while the teacher is wearing a mask?
“I’m glad I’m not in an administrative role,” he said. “They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”
With all the uncertainty and fear, there appears to be heightened interest in homeschooling.
Michelle Levell, co-founder of Granite State Home Educators, said that in recent weeks, 300 people joined the organization’s Facebook group, which now numbers 2,826.
“Every single statewide home support group has seen an uptick in interest since March,” she said.