CONWAY — What will the 2021-22 school year be like in terms of COVID-19 protocols? More social distancing and mask-wearing? Or more freedom?
That will be something for the SAU 9 Re-Entry Committee to discuss and decide.
This week, Superintendent Kevin Richard said he is optimistic that some schools in SAU 9 will see fewer restrictions than this past school year, but with the more contagious Delta variant of the virus now in all 50 states, nothing is set in stone.
“With vaccinations, things might look different for grades 9-12 than they do for 7-8 and K-6,” Richard said Tuesday, referring to the fact that the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine has been cleared for use with people age 12 and older.
Richard, who guided SAU 9 through the pandemic last year, plans to meet next week with a group of school and medical officials next week to begin crafting the 2021-22 version of the plan.
“The thing is, we’ll be prepared for whatever comes our way,” he said. “Right now, I don’t think any of us are quite sure what that might look like. As with this past year, I think things may be ever-changing.”
Richard hopes to bring a plan to the community by mid-August.
SAU 9 will have 1,900 students enrolled in Kennett High School, Kennett Middle, Conway Elementary, John H. Fuller Elementary and Pine Tree School, along with Josiah Bartlett Elementary School and Jackson Grammar School. Plus, there are 500 employees, ranging from bus drivers to teachers and support staff.
Nearly 50 citizens from across the Mount Washington Valley served on the SAU 9 Re-Entry Committee last summer, which met weekly on Zoom. The group was broken into six subcommittees: steering, transportation, facilities, personnel, scheduling and co-curricular. A nurse sat on each subcommittee.
“We’ll have a much smaller group this time,” Richard said.
The 35-page SAU 9 Re-Entry Committee Plan was crafted over seven weeks last July and August. Topics it covered included parent responsibilities, safety precautions, scheduling, transportation and co-curricular options for the three scenarios (face-to-face, hybrid and remote learning).
For example, the transportation section showed seating arrangements on buses and listed PPE (personal protective equipment) requirements at bus stops and at school.
The plan, with a recommendation to open the school year with face-to-face learning in Bartlett, Conway and Jackson, was approved by the SAU 9 Board in mid-August of 2020.
Of the final plan, Richard said at the time: “It’s detailed, and it gives you a baseline. I think this is what people were expecting from the governor’s office and the (education) commissioner. ... Regardless of which scenario that we begin the school year under, there is a very solid plan in place.”
Richard said SAU 9 hosted over 20 separate listening sessions over a two-week period last summer and heard from hundreds of parents, guardians and staff. Thanks to the plan, classrooms offered face-to-face learning the entire school year, though there were a few hiccups in November 2020 and April 2021 when cases surged, leading to some schools going remote for a week.
In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its re-entry guidelines, and it was uncanny how closely it resembled SAU 9’s.
“It looks like what we’ve been doing for the last six months,” Richard told the Sun on Feb. 17. “I saw them when they came out and thought, ‘Yeah, we’re doing all that and more.’ ”
Once the vaccines were developed, SAU 9 staff got the two-dose Moderna shots, administered March 27 and April 24 at Kennett High.
In May, once Pfizer received FDA clearance to make its two-shot vaccine available to age 12 and up, SAU 9 hosted vaccine clinics at Kennett High, Kennett Middle and Josiah Bartlett Elementary School.
“A number of older kids already have been vaccinated, is kind of the word that we’re getting,” Richard said on May 20. “We’re not forcing anyone to get the vaccine. We’re trying to remove any barriers for people looking to get their children vaccinated.”
At Kennett High, after spending a third of their high school careers amid the COVID-19 pandemic, 181 Eagles were able to take off their masks, see smiles on their classmates’ faces and receive their diplomas atop Mount Cranmore on June 13.
Thanks to vaccines and a sharp decline in COVID numbers across the country and state, Kennett students were not required to wear masks during graduation weekend, only donning them when they boarded and exited the chairlift at Cranmore.
Richard keeps up with news about the coronavirus and is concerned about the Delta variant.
“A major concern right now is Delta, a highly contagious (and possibly more severe) SARS-CoV-2 virus strain, which was first identified in India in December,” Yale Medicine, the clinical practice for the Yale School of Medicine, reported July 2.
“It then swept rapidly through that country and Great Britain as well, which has led to rising numbers of infections and deaths. The first Delta case in the United States was diagnosed a couple of months ago (in March) and now cases here are rapidly multiplying.”
Dr. Perry Wilson, a Yale Medicine epidemiologist, says Delta is spreading 50 percent faster than Alpha, which was 50 percent more contagious than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2.
“In a completely unmitigated environment — where no one is vaccinated or wearing masks — it’s estimated that the average person infected with the original coronavirus strain will infect 2.5 other people,” Dr. Wilson said. “In the same environment, Delta would spread from one person to maybe 3.5 or 4 other people.”
But a recent ABC News report said the Moderna vaccine appears to protect against all COVID variants. And Politifact said data released last Thursday night by Johnson & Johnson shows the vaccine remains highly protective against the delta variant and immunity may be long-lasting.
And according to The Wall Street Journal, while data from Israel suggest Pfizer’s vaccine is less effective at protecting against infections caused by the Delta variant, it retains its potency to prevent severe illness from the highly contagious strain.