Return to Full Time In Person Learning in 2021

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The purpose of this Petition is to provide information regarding the barriers in SAU 16 for a return to full time in person learning, the research and recommendations behind each, and a request that the Cooperative School Board and SAU 16 Administration commit to an action plan to remedy each ongoing barrier in the near future.  As it stands, the Cooperative Board and the SAU 16 Administration are not planning a return to full time in-person learning for our larger campuses at the Cooperative Middle School (CMS) or Exeter High School (EHS) until the CDC updates their guidelines reducing the physical spacing recommendation from six feet to three feet. This means, a return to full time in-person learning will not happen in the 2020-2021 academic year or at any time frame that is within our local control.

Action Items

Given the information outlined below, we respectfully request that the School Board and the SAU Administration immediately:

  1. Commit to following the NH State Guidelines for Return to School as opposed to the CDC Guidelines.  The State guidelines are tailored to the specific circumstances faced in NH and take into account the COVID-19 statistics and mitigation efforts in our State:
     
  2. Commit specifically to use of a 3-foot social distancing standard so that students can return to in-person learning 5 days per week as soon as possible and no later than the 2021-2022 academic year start;
     
  3. Commit to negotiation of a MOA for the 2021-2022 Academic Year that allows flexibility, as opposed to rigid standards so that it can be adapted to the changing circumstances in our State;
     
  4. Commit to exploring all potential uses of alternative space that would allow students to return to full time in-person learning for the remainder of the 2020-2021 academic year once educational staff are vaccinated (as an example, tents, outdoor space etc) and communicate these plans, complete with implementation dates.

**If you support a return to in person school on a full time basis, and wish for our Cooperative School Board to take action, please support this petition with your signature. **

Background and Current Status

According to an email dated February 16, 2021 from Helen Joyce, Chair of the Exeter Regional Cooperative School Board (which governs the Cooperative Middle School & Exeter Regional High School), 25% of students opted to remain fully remote. This number is not stratified by motivation: health vs continuity of education. 75% of students opted to return to school under what is currently being offered as the “in person model” consisting of two days per week, every other Friday and all other days considered asynchronous (independent learning days).

The administration has articulated four barriers to offering full time in person learning to our students:

●      Social Distancing Requirements/Physical Spacing Requirements

●      Ventilation in the buildings

●      Vaccinations for teachers and staff

●      A statewide mask mandate

Only two of these identified barriers remain unsatisfied within our SAU: social distancing requirements and vaccinations for our teachers and staff. Ventilation in each building has been updated to meet the current standards for mitigation of risk related to COVID-19 and other airborne illnesses, and the statewide mask mandate is in effect with compliance in all buildings on a regular, consistent basis.

Barrier 1: Social Distancing Requirements and Physical Spacing Requirements

Both the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the NH Department of Education (NHDOE) have published guidelines for K-12 schools to safely operate within the COVID-19 pandemic.  The guidelines from both groups were developed by multi-disciplinary task forces that included stakeholders from various groups and were evidence based. 

Keep in mind, the CDC guidelines are designed to address concerns across the United States of America and therefore reflect the reality of vastly different approaches from state to state in terms of COVID-19 mitigation efforts.  As an example, some states do not have a mask mandate, do not have widespread mask use, and do not have guidelines or restrictions for various businesses and industries like NH does.  By contrast, the NHDOE guidelines, are tailored specifically to the current reality in our State, including the fact that our infection and transmission rates are lower than many places, and we have a mask mandate that is generally followed by our citizens.

Per communication with Dr. Ryan, our SAU administration is following the CDC guidelines.  The CDC updated and published their Return to School guidelines on February 11, 2021. Within those guidelines, a six-foot social distancing recommendation was made. (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/schools.html According to an email received from Dr. Ryan on February 16, 2021, our SAU is preparing to offer in person learning five days per week, only when the CDC guidelines are updated to reflect a three-feet recommendation. Until that recommendation is made, our current hybrid model will be the status quo for the foreseeable future.  There has been no indication as to if or when the CDC intends to change their current recommendation, but since it was only published this month, it is unlikely to change soon.[1]

The NH Department of Education guidelines were developed by a multidisciplinary committee STRRT (https://www.education.nh.gov/sites/g/files/ehbemt326/files/inline-documents/2020-05/strrt-materials.pdf which included approximately 75 members ranging from school administrators, teachers, healthcare professionals, parents, students, professionals from various associations and clergy. Social distancing is not the only mitigation effort identified in this 55 page document--mitigation efforts include: COVID-19 screening protocols, contact tracing and quarantine protocols in the event of known or possible exposures, cohorting students, strict mask use, proper hygiene protocols, enhanced ventilation requirements, limitations on use of school buildings for non-school functions, and enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols. SAU 16 is adhering to each of these mitigation efforts.

In July 2020, the NHDOE issued their guidelines for reopening schools and Dr. Chan, our state epidemiologist issues their recommendations (https://www.education.nh.gov/sites/g/files/ehbemt326/files/inline-documents/sonh/covid-19-schoolreopening-07-20-20.pdf On page 2 the recommendations for social distancing are written as follows:

"Individual chairs/desks should be arranged so that students are spaced at least three feet apart with a goal of attempting to get chairs/desks six feet apart (six feet apart is preferred but may not be achievable)."

Additionally, in January 2021, the NHDOE updated their K-12 Back to School Guidance (https://www.covidguidance.nh.gov/sites/g/files/ehbemt381/files/inline-documents/sonh/k-12-back-to-school.pdf which includes recommendations for social distancing. On page 8, paragraph 4 it reads:

"Individual chairs/desks should be arranged so that, where possible, students are spaced at least three feet apart with a goal of attempting to get chairs/desks six feet apart – six feet apart is preferred but may not be achievable given classroom size and layout….A recent study and analysis in the journal The Lancet found that physical distancing of at least one meter (three feet) was effective and ‘associated with a large reduction in infection,’ although the authors acknowledged that greater distances could be more effective."

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued Covid-19 Guidance for Safe Schools (https://services.aap.org/en/pages/2019-novel-coronavirus-covid-19-infections/clinical-guidance/covid-19-planning-considerations-return-to-in-person-education-in-schools/ The most recent update was January 2021. Their position reads “The AAP continues to strongly advocate that all policy considerations for school COVID-19 plans should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” Additionally, physical distancing guidelines are addressed as follows:

"There is a conflict between optimal academic and social/emotional learning in schools and strict adherence to current physical distancing guidelines. For example, the CDC recommends that schools "space seating/desks at least 6 feet apart when feasible." In many school settings, 6 feet between students is not feasible without drastically limiting the number of students. Some countries have been able to successfully reopen schools after first controlling community-wide spread of SARS-CoV-2 while using 3 feet of distance between students without increases in community spread.20 Physical distance between desks should follow current public health guidance, and desks should be placed at least 3 feet apart and ideally 6 feet apart. In many jurisdictions, cloth face coverings are mandatory for children in public settings, including schools. Schools should weigh the benefits of strict adherence to a 6-feet spacing rule between students with the potential downside if remote learning is the only alternative." 

In October 2020, a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) was reached between the Exeter Regional Cooperative School Board and the Exeter Education Association and the Exeter Cooperative Paraprofessional Association to preserve the health and safety of our students, faculty and community members (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1AHfHdLBIRin1KBgxflnlxd7gyiuAcq4Q/view On page 9, paragraph 22 the issue of social distancing was addressed and reads as follows:

"As recommended by the CDC/DHHS guidelines, 6-foot social distancing and usage of PPE will be enforced for all staff and students within the school buildings, on school grounds and on school busses…"

Our school board, administration and educators opted to follow national CDC guidelines, as opposed to those adopted by NHDOE. The MOA did not include provisions for a reduction in infection rates or vaccination of staff altering this agreement—the MOA is in effect for the entire academic school year. Pursuant to this MOA, the current hybrid model of instruction must remain in effect the entire 2020-2021 academic year, even if the administration were to choose to follow the NHDOE guidelines, the CDC guidelines were to change to allow 3-foot social distancing, or staff become fully vaccinated.

The State epidemiologist, Dr. Chan, supports the use of 3-foot social distancing to accommodate more in person instruction for more students in our community given the current infection rates in New Hampshire, assuming all other mitigation efforts outlined above are implemented and followed. Despite 72 positive cases of COVID-19 in SAU16 since this school year began, there continues to be zero evidence of in school transmission.  This is true even as 931 individuals have been identified as “close contacts” of a positive or potential positive case (defined as within 6 feet of the positive or potential positive for a cumulative total of 10 or more minutes) and required to quarantine.

The Institute for Health Metrics published data projects that NH COVID-19 infection rates, hospitalizations, and death rates are projected to steadily decline over the next several months.  These projections account for COVID-19 variants and mask use compliance.  https://covid19.healthdata.org/united-states-of-america/new-hampshire?view=social-distancing&tab=trend

Proposed Solution: Develop and implement a return to school plan allowing all students access to in-person education five days per week using the evidenced based guidelines that allow for 3 feet of physical spacing.

 

Barrier 2: Vaccination Availability for Faculty and Staff

Currently, all school faculty and staff are eligible for vaccination in Group 2A, as outlined by the state schedule. This group is estimated to begin vaccinations in March, dependent upon availability of the vaccine in NH. However, this schedule does not prevent any member of faculty and staff who may qualify to be vaccinated in an earlier group from receiving a vaccination as soon as they are eligible to do so. We would presume that those faculty and staff that required and qualified for ADA accommodation would have also met the criteria for Group 1 as outlined by the state schedule, removing the barriers for their return to school.

Dr. Ryan has stated verbally and on record that he has requested 1200 doses from the state of NH for the faculty and staff of our SAU with no success. https://www.seacoastonline.com/story/news/education/2021/02/11/covid-vaccine-now-for-nh-teachers-schools-and-gov-sununu-disagree/4453689001/  However, the MOA referenced above would make any earlier vaccination schedule inconsequential. Even if every faculty and staff member were vaccinated as early as January 2021, a return to five day in person education would be contingent upon a successful renegotiation of the MOA from October.

It should be noted, that an earlier vaccination schedule would eliminate the need to quarantine based on suspected exposure to COVID-19, which currently causes disruption with our existing educational programing, such as the incident at CMS on February 5, when 37 members were absent resulting in school closure.

However, the CDC has stated that schools can operate safely without vaccinations (https://www.businessinsider.com/cdc-director-teacher-vaccinations-arent-necessary-to-open-schools-2021-2 Our SAU has chosen to not follow that CDC recommendation.

Proposed Solution: Continue to lobby the NH state government for access to vaccines and prioritize unused daily doses for faculty and staff. Provide statistics for the number of faculty and staff that require full vaccination in order to return to full time in person learning. Allow those faculty and staff that would like to return to full time in person learning the ability to do so.

 

The Ongoing and Long Term Cost of the Status Quo

Under the current rubric articulated by SAU 16 administration, our students currently under the hybrid model (defined as in person school 2 or 3 days per week with no direct instruction on the other days) will not be able to return to full in person instruction for the foreseeable future, including in the 2021-2022 academic year because of the 6-foot distancing requirement and the lack of space to accommodate that.[2]  At the same time, we know that our students and families are in crisis, and we are past the tipping point in terms of ongoing harm.

Data last week indicated 45 children statewide were being held in Emergency Departments while waiting for necessary inpatient psychiatric care because no beds were available.  Prior to the pandemic, on any given day there would be 0-5 children waiting in Emergency Departments statewide.  This means a nine-fold increase in our pediatric population meeting criteria for inpatient psychiatric care (i.e. they are an imminent danger to themselves or others).  These children are being held (alone without their parents or loved one and without appropriate psychiatric care) until proper care can be obtained. This data is in line with national data provided by CDC:  https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6945a3.htm

Anecdotally, our local pediatricians are reporting that they are seeing double and triple the appointments for anxiety and depression in children that never suffered from these conditions. Mental health providers report a significant increase in child and adolescent mental health safety concerns related to isolation, self-harm, suicidal ideation, substance use and online sexual exploitation. Rates of domestic violence have also increased in our community.  Online sexual exploitation of children, in some cases happening on school sanctioned programs such as Minecraft, have increased significantly as children spend more time on screens with remote and asynchronous learning. Local clinicians report that as children are able to attend school closer to full time (4-5 in person days per week) their mental health symptoms improve significantly. Families seeking mental health services and treatment for their children are often not able to access services as the mental health care system lacks provider workforce, among other barriers to access such as insurance.

The mental health crisis created by the pandemic and exacerbated by our reduced school capacity is only one small piece of the puzzle.  We have just begun to process the data regarding truancy, students who have fallen behind academically, abuse, neglect, substance abuse, truancy, food insecurity, and so many more things. Recently, Bedford High School has reported an increase in academic failure. https://www.unionleader.com/news/education/failing-grades-up-more-than-100-during-quarter-one-at-bedford-high/article_c2c07568-e80b-5394-a36c-2bf8ce7089ac.html  Teachers report a high number of students do not attend remote classes and most who do are in listen only mode, making it almost impossible for teachers to engage with their students and do their jobs to the best of their ability. It is unclear if our SAU is collecting this data and if so, what they are doing to alter the course.  

It is imperative that we as a community find a way to restore the necessary stability, structure, and education that our students desperately need. While we are tracking COVID-19 cases on a dashboard, we are missing the larger picture: the detrimental impact isolation has had on our children.

**If you support a return to in person school on a full time basis, and wish for our Cooperative School Board to take action, please support this petition with your signature. **

 

Footnotes
[1] Per the CDC: “Implementation of layered mitigation strategies will need to continue until we better understand potential transmission among people who received a COVID-19 vaccine and there is more vaccination coverage in the community. In addition, vaccines are not yet approved for use in children under 16 years old. For these reasons, even after teachers and staff are vaccinated, schools need to continue mitigation measures for the foreseeable future, including requiring masks in schools and physical distancing.”
[2] The recent statements by SAU 16 administration that they are planning for a full time return to school in the fall seem to be predicated on their hope that the CDC will relax their guidelines before then. In the likely event that the CDC guidelines do not change by then, there appears to be no plan to return to school full time.