CONCORD, NH — Concord’s interim school superintendent will be advising school board members Monday about updates to the SAU 8 district’s reopening plan — which could include a shift to a hybrid model by the end of next month.
Kathleen Murphy, in a letter to students, parents, and staff Sunday, said input from the public, “on various issues” and concerns shared were “very helpful as we address the needs of our students and families.” The correspondence and “challenges you face,” she added, were “taken into consideration” by the district. The emails and letters received were read by all involved, Murphy said.
“District personnel have been working to develop a school day that includes synchronous (real-time) learning and opportunities for peer-to-peer interactions,” Murphy said. “In addition, they are planning parent forums to provide information about each school’s schedule, and orientation for students.”
On Monday, administration and board members will be discussing more recommendations — including opening the Capital Region Technical Center; supporting the needs of students who are “at risk” by allowing them to attend school; and resuming some athletic and extracurricular programs at the high and middle school. Murphy said in-class students would include students with individualized education program plans (IEPs) in all grades including preschoolers, English language learners, homeless students, and students that do not have Internet support.
Gov. Chris Sununu last week signed an emergency order requiring districts to ensure at risk students and students with IEPs received the in-person services they may need during the pandemic.
If COVID-19 infections remain low, Murphy said, the district could transition to some form of a hybrid model by the end of September.
“I am recommending that within the next three weeks, the Instructional Committee of the board meet to set a date to move to a hybrid model,” she said.
Analysis: Fully Remote Learning Vote Seemed Based On Fear Not Facts
School board members voted Aug. 6 to reopen schools Sept. 8 with a “fully remote” model during a six-plus hour meeting that went into the next morning.
The meeting was exceedingly emotional, showing how serious and concerned board members were with what they were tackling. Dr. James Noble, an infectious disease specialist at Concord Hospital for decades, gave the board an overview about the risks of COVID-19 currently — comments one teachers union member reportedly called “fake news.” At least a few school board members were clearly leaning toward a hybrid model during their comments toward the end of the meeting but more than a majority wanted fully remote learning — due to what they believed was a huge risk of infection with teachers from students.
The decision to go to fully remote shocked many in the community including single parents and two-parent households who must work full-time to pay the bills. Many said they were overwhelmed during the previous school year’s emergency lockdown.
The vote also seemed influenced more by fear than reality, facts, or data about the state of the COVID-19 pandemic in Concord, Merrimack County, and New Hampshire.
While Concord is the state’s third largest city and is 30 minutes away from more infected areas of Hillsborough and Rockingham counties, it has not been hit hard by the new coronavirus. Only 139 people in Concord, less than 1/3 of 1 percent of the city’s population, have contracted the virus since it was first discovered in New Hampshire in March. There have also only been five or fewer active cases of the disease for two and half weeks.
In Merrimack County, the numbers are also shockingly low: Only 472 people have become infected with the virus. As of Aug. 15, there were only 10 active cases in the county. Only 41, less than 6 percent of cases in the county, have required hospitalization and only 23 people have died — out of about 152,000 residents.
At the same time, nearly 12,000 tests for the virus have been issued at Concord Hospital alone (testing data for Concord and the county have been requested by the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services but its public information officer has yet to respond to the request. The information is not yet published on the state’s updated data dashboard).
With nearly everything in life, there is risk and everyone understands the importance of avoiding it. Responsible people and leaders do everything they can to succeed and avoid risk without harming others — especially with many unknowns with COVID-19.
But the big question that seemed ignored was, Are teachers in Concord really in danger? The science, data, and facts appear to show the risk is limited — with educators probably having a greater risk of catching the virus outside the classroom, living their non-career lives.
While data for child infections are not available at post time for Concord or Merrimack County, the data is available for the state.
According to the data dashboard, as of Aug. 15, fewer than 7.2 percent of all COVID-19 cases in New Hampshire were individuals 19-years-old or younger (the state’s definition of a child while looking at the new coronavirus cases). Children from birth to 9 made up 2.2 percent of cases or 156 children infected while 10 to 19 made up 5 percent or 346 cases in the entire state.
Children make up about 20 percent of the state’s 1.36 million residents — meaning less than 2/10th of 1 percent of state’s children have caught COVID-19 in five and half months.
Of the less than 502 children infected with COVID-19, only nine required hospitalization — about 1.3 percent of all child infections.
Most importantly, no children have died in New Hampshire due to COVID-19.
There has been one death under 40 years of age in the entire state: That single fatality was a 22-year-old man from Concord’s North End with severe underlying health conditions.
Then there is the case of the lack of daycare center infections.
According to state officials, in the hundreds of daycare centers that have remained opened during the pandemic, as well as new facilities that have opened, very few cases have emerged despite these children being from families with parents who work in many high-risk industries like health care, first responders, retail, and other essential services. There are no known cases of daycare children catching the virus from other children — but a handful caught it from their own families, according to contact tracing performed by health officials.
What about the aging educator population? Won’t they be in danger?
While it is true that thousands of teachers in the state are over the age of 50, less than a third of all coronavirus cases in New Hampshire are between 50 and 69 years of age.
The infection rate percentage of most other age groups between 20 and 69, or teaching age, were pretty even, between 12.6 to 16.2 percent of all cases. At less than 7,000 cases in the state as of Aug. 15, no age group has an overwhelming chance of becoming infected with COVID-19 when compared to another. And a small fraction of the state, overall, has contracted it.
This lack of risk of infection to educators and students is one reason the Bow-Dunbarton and Merrimack Valley School District, where Concord students in the north of the city, who live in Penacook, attend school, are offering hybrid learning from Day 1.
When analyzing the science and data, educators in Concord appear to have little to fear, actually.
The decision appeared to have been made due to political pressure including members of the Concord Education Association, the city’s teachers union. Board members received a number of emails and phone calls about the fear educators had surmised succinctly by a former teacher of the year, Heidi Crumrine, an English teacher at Concord High School, in a column published hours after the vote. The thought that teachers somehow were not essential workers like firefighters, cops, grocery employees, journalists, and others, struck some as flat out ridiculous. Whether teachers can work from home or not, during a pandemic, when everyone is supposed to be all-in, working together, closing schools seemed puzzling, at best.
“This is a joke,” one woman said about the remote learning plan on the Concord NH Patch Facebook feed. “Do we get a credit on our property taxes, since schools will have been closed for an entire school year and parents now have to educate their own children?,” another reader asked. “My kids both cried,” another wrote. “A sad day.” While a handful of people supported the decision, most did not, calling it the worst of all possible decisions.
The decision also went against what the majority of parents requested they do in surveys performed earlier this summer. Of the more than 1,050 parents, 74 to 82 percent to be exact, sent board members a clear message: They want their children in school either full-time or part-time. That was an overwhelming message they ignored. The majority of teachers, too, preferred the hybrid model (although it was close).
The fear, too, was wondrous when considering educators and other district staffers have been seen, for months, inside Concord restaurants, shopping downtown, at Market Basket, swimming in the Contoocook River, and attending Black Lives Matter rallies and events — with some not even wearing masks, while actively enjoying the summer weather. To now say they are scared for their safety seemed bizarre.
It is unknown if the emotionality of the heightened political times influenced the board or the community. Many educators and politicians were very critical of the New Hampshire Department of Education’s reopening recommendations, which offered guidance but allowed school districts local control to make decisions.
Mike Macri, the president of the CEA and a committed special education teacher, said weeks before the district’s vote that no matter what SAU 8 decided to do to keep the schools safe and clean, he didn’t think they would be able to accomplish a level of protection educators were comfortable with. That theme seems to be in line with talking points from the state’s two teachers union which are also organizing to defeat Sununu later this year.
Megan Tuttle, the president of NEA-NH, has been on the front lines of the fight — calling for more teachers to be hired, more resources, expanded worker compensation benefits, and other items that could require renegotiation of dozens of contracts around the state, and at a time of near economic collapse, with 11 percent of Concord residents collecting unemployment and many living with a lot less than before. The union endorsed Andru Volinsky, Concord’s executive councilor, in the Democrat’s primary against state Sen. Dan Feltes, another Concord Democrat, who received the endorsement of the AFT-NH, another teachers union in New Hampshire. Doug Fey, a state representative and president of that union, said Feltes’ championing of education and educators and leadership during COVID-19, “always putting workers first,” was one of the reasons he was endorsed.
But what seemed missing was the harm to kids or their parents, the ones responsible for paying the property taxes as well as teacher and staff salaries who potentially will get hit with financial hardships with a fully remote learning option.
Thankfully, the trajectory in New Hampshire for the new coronavirus has gone exactly how everyone hoped and expected it would even after slowly reopening via the Safer at Home order in June — down … way down, from the heights of April. Children in New Hampshire are not catching the virus at the same rate as adults and adults in the state are not catching the virus at anywhere near the levels of before — which was still much lower than most other places in the nation.
Now, this could all change. That is true. But this is the data, science, and facts before the Aug. 6 vote and currently.
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This article originally appeared on the Concord Patch