“Return-to-School” proposal decision set for August 10

UPDATE: On Tuesday, Mayor Craig released this statement regarding the BOSC’s decision regarding masks.

“Last night, the Board of School Committee voted in favor of mandatory face coverings and modifying classroom layouts with a minimum of 6-foot social distancing between desks for the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. There are a lot of unknowns related to COVID-19, and we know there are many concerns about plans for schools this fall.

While there were limited safety requirements provided by the State, I’m glad we were able to provide some clarity on the guiding standards for how the Manchester School District will approach the upcoming school year. By August 10th, Superintendent Goldhardt will present a reentry plan to help keep educators, staff, students and their families safe.”

MANCHESTER, N.H. – With the 2020-’21 school year quickly approaching, a comprehensive strategy on the return to school in the age of COVID-19 has emerged, with the Manchester Board of School Committee (BOSC) taking several initial steps during their Monday evening meeting.

In a 13-1 vote, the BOSC approved Aug. 10 as the date for a finalized proposal on how to approach the new school year, based on preliminary recommendations from Manchester School District Superintendent Dr. John Goldhardt.

Those recommendations, given in a presentation called “Returning With Confidence and Care” stressed flexibility and parental choice between remote learning and in-person education. Goldhardt could not endorse a “pre-pandemic” model where all students returned to school immediately, but said that returning to a complete remodel learning model did not have to be the only option.

In the proposal, elementary and middle school students would be broken up into three groups, with students from the first group learning in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays and learning remotely on Thursdays and Fridays, a mirror image of students in the second group. Students in the third group would learn remotely all five days a week while Wednesdays would be used for deep cleaning of schools, one-on-one interventions, digital support and teacher planning. In the plan, parents would be allowed to choose whether their children would join one of the two “hybrid” groups or the fully remote group.

For high school students that option was joined by another option with four in-person groups with each group getting one in-school day and three remote learning days while Wednesday remained as a tutoring and digital support day.

Goldhardt stressed the need for flexibility in plans based on the evolving nature of the pandemic, also warning about the social, emotional and educational costs of too much remote learning as well as the economic costs of returning to school in-person, which he estimated at $2 to $3 million.

He also warned that the district could not guarantee that someone would not get infected with COVID-19 despite through precautions.

While Goldhardt said a set of finalized proposals could be ready by Aug. 1, the Aug. 10 date would allow for additional feedback from staff and community members. Only James O’Connell (At-Large) voted against the Aug. 10 date, with Dan Bergeron (Ward 6) was absent for all of the evening’s votes.

Additional votes were also taken to help guide the process for Aug. 10, although Ward 11 BOSC Member Dr. Nicole Leapley expressed concern at what she saw as a “piecemeal” approach to the topic.

In his presentation, Goldhardt recommended requiring masks for all adults and visitors on school grounds and all students in third grade and above. He also recommended mask usage for first and second graders and wanted to leave mask requirements for preschoolers and kindergarteners up to parents.

However, the BOSC instead approved following CDC guidelines that recommend everyone over the age of two wear a mask and maintain six feet of distance from others while inside a school building. This motion passed 13-1, with only Joseph Lachance (At-Large) opposing.

The Board also approved a measure to begin the school year on Sept. 9 and Sept. 12 for preschoolers, with three extra days of professional development in early September for teachers to prepare for the new school year. This motion passed 13-0, with no vote recorded from Jane Beaulieu (Ward 10).

Another motion to waive the normal procurement process for any items related to COVID-19 passed by a 14-0 vote after it was revealed that the waiver would impact only the speed of procurement and not the requirement to accept bids from suppliers.

Prior to the meeting, many members of the public felt that it was hypocritical for the BOSC to expect children to return to schools while they still met remotely.

Although Ward 4 BOSC Member Leslie Want withdrew her initial motion to force the BOSC’s return to in-person meetings at city hall, Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig urged members of the board to support a return to in-person meetings, following in the footsteps of the Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen earlier this month, adding that daily COVID-19 infection rates are dropping in the city.

While some members of the BOSC said they could only support the move if everyone in attendance was required to wear masks, something not done with the Aldermen, the primary point of support for returning stemmed around the need for transparency, which supporters believed is easier without technological limitations around video technology.

Unlike the schools, a “hybrid” system has proven to be infeasible for BOSC meetings, with even telephonic participation available for only one member at a time.

However, even if social distancing at city hall is inadequate, some supporters of the concept still felt a return to in-person meetings was a good idea.

“I’d be happy to meet at Gill Stadium and have the mayor on the dais in the infield,” said O’Connell. “I think the public expects it of us. I understand where we are, but we have a city hall that is air conditioned and refurbished.”

Ward 9 BOSC Member Arthur Beaudry opposed the idea, stating that members of the board, just like district employees, should not feel forced to work in-person if they do not feel safe doing so.

Ward 7 BOSC Member William Shea said flat out that he would not enter city hall under any circumstances until the pandemic concludes, citing a fear that he may inadvertently spread  the disease to his wife, who has underlying health conditions.

The matter was tabled until the BOSC’s next meeting.