CONWAY — SAU 9 Superintendent Kevin Richard says he has “a high level of confidence” that the SAU 9 Re-Entry Committee’s recommendation will be “a return to school for face-to-face education.”
The SAU 9 Re-Entry Committee worked to finalize a plan Wednesday, focused on “reducing the risk of exposure to COVID-19 while providing for the eventual return to SAU 9 school facilities for students and staff members,” which will go to the full SAU 9 Board when it meets next Thursday (Aug. 6).
Interviewed on Thursday, Richard said that the recommendation to return to face-to-face education could change a month from now if a larger volume of coronavirus cases are reported in the Mount Washington Valley.
The plan should be available to the community by Monday on the SAU 9 website (SAU9.org).
School boards will make the ultimate decision on what educational path schools in their districts take.
The first day of classes for SAU 9 had been scheduled for Aug. 31, with teachers set to return Aug. 26. But Richard shared with the Conway School Board on Monday via Zoom that opening day will now be in September.
“There’s great potential that I will be recommending to the SAU 9 Board some calendar revisions,” Richard said. “We are in the process of developing the calendar with potentially the start (being) the Tuesday after Labor Day (Sept. 8).”
The SAU 9 Re-Entry Committee, which was made up of nearly 50 members, met again via Zoom on Wednesday for a little over 90 minutes.
On Wednesday though, the meeting was specifically for the steering committee, a subcommittee of the overall SAU 9 Re-Entry Committee.
Steering committee members include pediatricians Dr. Wenda Saunders and Dr. Rich Laracy; SAU 13 Superintendent Meredith Nadeau; Conway School Board Chairman Joe Lentini; SAU 9 Board and Bartlett School Board Chairman Nancy Kelemen; safety coordinator Linda Burns; Matt Leavitt, the town’s emergency coordinator; along with building principals Kevin Carpenter (Kennett High), Rick Biche (Kennett Middle School), Dr. Aimee Frechette (Pine Tree Elementary School), Danielle Nutting (John H.Fuller Elementary School), Jason Robert (Conway Elementary School), Gayle Dembowksi (Jackson Grammar School) and Joe Yahna (Josiah Bartlett Elementary School) and Richard.
Richard likes the final plan.
“It’s solid,” Richard said of the plan on July 22. “It’s very well thought out. It’s detailed and it gives you a baseline. I think this is what people were expecting from the governor’s office and the commissioner. I’m glad we didn’t wait until last week to start this process.”
The plan, in draft form, as of July 22, was 27 pages in length.
The committee had been looking at three options to begin the school year: face-to-face instruction in school; remote learning only; or a hybrid combination of the two, with with some students in the classroom while others study remotely, then flip-flopping every couple of weeks.
Of the three, Richard said the hybrid plan would in all likelihood create the most hurdles to pull off successfully. There would need to be a lot of moving parts to ensure that students who are on the free-and-reduced-lunch program receive meals if in or out of school.
“That will be a nightmare,” Richard said during the July 22 re-entry meeting. “That is the least recommended plan I think for everybody.”
Richard said it would be more difficult for the younger grades to pull off a hybrid option than for the high school.
“There may be the opportunity for students to just take remote learning at the high school level regardless of where they’re at,” he said July 22, but added the options for such a plan could be very basic.
“It may be like I said, English I, English II, English III and English IV, those are your options,” he said, “But yeah, that hybrid piece that’s a tough one. It’s a tough one for parents. It’s a tough one for the community, lunching and logistics. The only thing it does do is it really drops the capacity within the building, the percent that it’s full, and that’s why it would be used.”
Appearing on a virtual education roundtable with Sen. Maggie Hassan on Monday, Carpenter shared what may be the scenario for students and staff at Kennett High to open the school year.
“Under our model, we’re going to have some of our kids, they’re going to be doing remote even though they’re in school, just so that we minimize those number of transitions,” said Carpenter. “We’re only going to have the kids transition once in a day to keep that cohort down. So they’ll be meeting with other teachers in other classes, but they’ll be in one classroom with one teacher, but learning from and working with a completely different teacher in the building. So (it will be important to make) sure that our building can support that and have the bandwidth to support a thousand devices running at the same time between the teachers and students.”
The current plan requires masks be worn by students and staff when they are in school buildings.
Richard said the general feeling is that the steering committee next week will agree unanimously or by consensus “that masks will be in place for students and staff whenever we’re in the building.”
“It is expected, not just recommended. I think we need to be very specific,” Richard said.
Parents had wondered about nap time for preschoolers and whether masks would/should be required for that.
“I think it’s going to work, I really think they’re going to be able to do it with the masks even the little children above the age of 2,” Laracy said. “And I think nap time would be OK to still wear a mask. It won’t increase any carbon dioxide levels or anything like that. I think we should really try this that we recommend that everyone wears the mask and we’ll find out if it’s going to be a real big issue with the younger children wearing them.”
The committee is also recommending students and teachers hold classes outdoors whenever possible. The SAU is exploring the possibility of sideless tents on some campuses.
“I think that you’ll see tents on different fields close to the buildings,” Richard said. “We’ve already started talking to the technology department to make sure that there’s access outdoors. “John Fuller has great outdoor classrooms up there. The middle school has all those fields and also the courtyard area outside that can be used.”
Nadeau and Richard are looking for ways to make provisions for staff. They admit there is a shortage of substitute teachers.
“Part of the implementation of this plan is we may have to hire two long-term subs at each building, just to have onboard whether we need them or not, because then you can really restrict their access to a specific building rather than going from building to building,” Richard said.
“You have them on board because inevitably, something will happen where either a teacher will get sick or their children will get sick and or their spouse or somebody, and we’re going to have to be able to try and do that,” he said.
Lentini wondered when the decision would be made to switch from face to face to remote learning.
“Shouldn’t there be a clear metric though when the school would close,” he asked. “What do we say to parents? We’re just going to sort of play it by what looks right? If there’s a clear metric, as to the number of infections locally, or however you wanted to define it, that they can look at and see. Otherwise, it just seems odd to me.”
“I wish there was a clear metric but there just doesn’t seem to be one out there,” Laracy replied. “We could make our own but that really wouldn’t be based on any science. And maybe there will be one in the next month or so from the CDC or the American Academy of Pediatrics. But right now, there just isn’t any metric and I think it’s going to have to be a team decision between SAU 9, the (state) Department of Health and I could weigh in. Joe, I wish there was but it’s not out there.”