LACONIA — As August approaches, another school year is on the horizon, although one that won't look anything like a typical school year.
School districts in the Lakes Region are starting to finalize their recommendations on how they might welcome students and teachers back to the classroom safely, amid questions of how feasible that can be as New Hampshire continues to record new COVID-19 cases.
Groups which include school administrators, teachers, and other stakeholders are taking a close look on what instruction would look like at all the different grade levels — elementary, middle, and high.
Districts are exploring three opening scenarios, according to three local school superintendents. One would be how it would work if all students returned to school for in-class instruction. Another would be for a continuation of remote learning, similar to what students experienced after schools closed in March when the coronavirus pandemic struck. A third is what educators call a hybrid model, a combination of face-to-face instruction with online learning.
While school districts have for weeks been exploring how safely to reopen school, the pace of that task has quickened in the last two weeks after the state released a set of guidelines.
Gov. Chris Sununu has described the guidance in the 49-page report as “flexible,” leaving nearly all decisions on health and safety rules to local boards.
That local decision-making includes whether to require students, teachers or staff to wear face masks, and and how much social distancing to require in classrooms and on school buses.
(The state guidelines do not require students wear face masks, but recommend that they do so whenever they are closer than the recommended social-distancing of 3 to 6 feet.)
Working groups in the Laconia, Gilford, and Shaker Regional school districts have been meeting at least weekly. They have discussed issues such as classroom configuration, cleaning and sanitation procedures, technology, social-distancing requirements, food service, and busing.
In Laconia, the working groups include parents and school board members, along with teachers and other school staff. Their task is to come up with a series of proposals by the end of this month. District leaders will then review those findings and use them as the basis of recommendations that are scheduled to be presented to the School Board when it meets on Aug. 4., Superintendent Steve Tucker said.
The same mechanism is being used in the Gilford School District and the Shaker Regional School district, which serves Belmont and Canterbury.
The Shaker School Board is scheduled to look at a preliminary reopening plan next Tuesday, according to Superintendent Michael Tursi. The Gilford School Board is due to receive the administration’s recommendation on Aug. 4, Superintendent Kirk Beitler said.
Calls to the Inter-Lakes School District superintendent’s office to get information on how reopening planning was proceeding for schools in Meredith and Sandwich were not returned. A draft plan for reopening “will be shared with our school community,” states a posting on the district website.
The Inter-Lakes School Board is scheduled to meet next on Aug. 11, according to the district website.
The coming school year in Laconia, Gilford, and Inter-Lakes is scheduled to start on Sept. 8 — the day after Labor Day. The first day of school in the Shaker District is set for a week earlier — on Aug. 31.
“The general desire is to bring students back to school,” Tucker told the Laconia School Board on June 14. “What this will look like remains to be seen.” He amplified that comment after the meeting, saying: “It won’t be 2,000 students coming back to school all at once. That’s not going to happen.”
Tucker said 80 percent of those responding to a survey taken in June want children to be back in school this fall. About 700 people — school staff, parents, and students in grades five through 12 received the survey, he said.
Surveys were conducted this month in the Shaker, Gilford, and Inter-Lakes districts.
What school transportation will look like is another question.
Tucker told the School Board that with social-distancing restrictions buses will be only able to carry a fraction of the students they have in the past — between 15 and 36 percent.
The state guidelines state that districts should consider urging parents to transport their own children to and from school rather than rely on school buses where social distancing could be hard to enforce.
Tucker acknowledged there may be parents who feel their children will not be safe on a bus, but he stressed that Laconia is determined to provide bus transportation to all those students who qualify. The school district’s policy states students who live more than 1½ miles from their school can ride the bus.
(State law requires school districts to provide bus transportation to students in grades 1 through 8 who live 2 miles or more from school. While transportation for high school students is not required, all area school districts provide it.)
Beitler agreed that transportation is a big part of the school reopening puzzle.
“The question is how can we get everyone there, and can (the bus company) get everyone there safely,” he said.
As those working to come up with reopening proposals dig further into the specifics, they discover the complexities of the task.
For example, Tucker said the logistics of using a hybrid instruction at the high school level may be different than at an elementary school because high school students move from one classroom to another throughout the day while younger students usually stay together as a group for the whole day.
The state guidelines stress that districts need to come up with reopening plans that are flexible so they can be changed if necessary as the number COVID cases across the state and locally changes.
Beitler said the operation of Gilford schools needs to be based on sound and up-to-date data.
“We need more data,” he said, “and people to manage it all.”
Belknap County so far accounts for 1.5 percent of the number of the state’s COVID cases, according to information provided by the state Department of Health and Human Services. There are eight active cases in the county, according to the latest report.
Because of the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, even once school boards approve their respective reopening plans they may need to be adjusted either in the weeks before classes resume or even after students are back inside the buildings.
“It’s like building a plane and flying it at the same time,” Laconia High School Principal Robert Bennett said.