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Manchester, N.H., Schools Reopen with All-Remote Learning

Students in New Hampshire’s largest city will begin the year learning remotely but could move to an optional hybrid model at the end of the first quarter, under a plan approved by school board members Monday night.

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(TNS) — Students in grades 2-12 in Manchester, N.H., will begin the school year learning remotely but could move to an optional hybrid model at the end of the first quarter, under a plan approved by school board members Monday night.

The plan calls for the district to return to a hybrid model with in-person instruction two days a week by the second quarter of the school year, if current COVID-19 data support such a move and safety protocols are in place. Students will have the option of returning to school or continuing with remote learning.

The vote was 13-2 in favor, with only At Large member Joe Lachance and Mayor Joyce Craig opposed. Lachance said he preferred to have students attend school in person. Craig had suggested a friendly amendment where school administrators would begin looking at COVID-19 data in mid-September, with an eye toward students returning to class in a hybrid model by Oct. 5.

“I’d like to thank the Board of School Committee for supporting the principles that we have laid out for a responsible reopening of Manchester schools," said Supt. of Schools John Goldhardt. "While a full in-person reopening may work for other communities, it was simply not feasible or responsible for our district to do so. In choosing to slowly bring students back in person – starting with specialized programming and our youngest students – I believe we are striking the right balance for our students, families and staff.”

“We want students, families and staff to feel safe, secure and confident," added Goldhardt. "We have spent many months preparing for this, and we will continue to assess and adjust as we go forward. This school year will be unlike any other, but it’s important that our families know that whether we are in person or remote, we are here for them.”

“We are not going to please everybody with this, but I appreciate your thoughtful, measured approach to a very difficult situation,” said Craig.

School board members also voted to allow teachers in grades 2-12 - who have adequate equipment and permission from administrators - to teach remotely from home if they want, though the district will not cover their internet or electrical costs. Teachers in those same grades who want to teach in person will also be allowed to do so. That motion passed 12-3, with Lachance, At Large member Jim O’Connell and Jeremy Dobson of Ward 5 opposed.

Board members also approved having students in grades pre-K through first attend in person two days a week for the first quarter. The vote was 9-6, with board vice-chairwoman Leslie Want, Dobson, Arthur Beaudry, Kelly Thomas, O’Connell and Lachance opposed.

Under Goldhardt’s plan, students in pre-K, kindergarten and first grade will begin the year in the blended model, attending school in person for part of the week unless they prefer the all-remote option. Specialized programming will also be in person as much as possible to begin the year.

Families will be asked to choose which model they’re most comfortable with, and with that information, administrators will be able to firm up plans. Parents will be notified of their options by Aug. 17 and will have until Aug. 24 to make their selection.

Board members also voted 12-3 to have Career and Technical Education (CTE) students at Manchester School of Technology attend school in person. Opposed were Beaudry, O’Connell and Lachance.

The start of the school year in the Queen City has been delayed until Sept. 9 to give administrators and staff more time to prepare for reopening. Preschool students will start Sept. 14. The school year was scheduled to begin Sept. 2

If and when students return to in-person learning, all those over the age of 2 as well as staff will be required to wear masks and stay six feet apart inside school buildings. School board members approved that requirement last month.

School administrators said they are developing protocols regarding what the district does if a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19. The guidelines are expected to be shared at a meeting later this month, though the city’s Public Health Chief Operations Officer Phil Alexakos said the age of the student or students would be a factor in making the decision to quarantine or not.

Beaudry asked if teachers will be given a choice to teach in person or remotely. Goldhardt said whenever possible that will be the case.

Beaudry went on to express concerns over the number of asymptomatic people and children testing positive for COVID-19 across the country. He suggested cancelling all fall and winter sports.

“I’m concerned about our athletes; there’s no way they’re going to be able to social-distance,” said Beaudry.

Beaudry made a motion for all students to attend school remotely through March 17, 2021, and cancel all fall and winter sports. The motion was never seconded.

Under the proposal, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday will be designated as regular remote learning days to begin the year. Wednesdays will be set aside for independent learning, as well as interventions, academic coaching, tutoring, small group re-teaching of material, and other things that require particular attention.

Students will be able to participate in school activities but will meet online when group size or social distancing are concerns.

School board members approved high school sports for the fall semester. Athletic teams will follow guidelines issued by the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association.

In October, Goldhardt and other administrators will work with the Manchester Health Department to evaluate the remote learning model, current COVID-19 numbers in the community and safety precautions. At that point, they will recommend whether to stay in remote learning or move to the hybrid model in the second quarter.

In the hybrid model, students will attend school in-person two days each week and learn remotely two other days.

Students whose last names begin with A through K will go to school Monday and Tuesday and work from home on Thursdays and Fridays. Students with last names beginning with L-Z will work from home the first two days of the week and attend class in-person the last two days.

Everyone will do school work from home on Wednesdays.

Among other proposed changes, students will use backpacks rather than lockers, middle school students will stay in the same classroom as much as possible and high school class times will be staggered to limit hallway congestion.

During Monday’s meeting, dozens of emails from parents, teachers and community members - some supporting the reopening proposal, some questioning the plan’s merits - were read aloud by school board clerk Angela Carey.

Prior to Monday’s vote, several board members expressed support for Goldhardt’s plan.

“My focus is on the safety of our staff and students and the education of our students while supporting our families,” said Ward 3’s Karen Soule. “I want to be sure that our facilities are safe for our staff and students before in-person education begins. I want to be sure that if we have remote learning that relationships are built, platforms are consistent, and most importantly our students are continuing to grow and learn. I want to be sure that our educators are not overwhelmed with the expectations in remote learning.”

“I support the administration proposal to have a phased return to school,” said At Large board member Jim O’Connell. The most important consideration is the health and safety of our students and staff. I have concerns about having our teachers in the classrooms delivering remote learning. To me it seems like micro management and smacks of distrust of our dedicated professional teaching staff. If there are teachers who are not competent or willing to deliver robust on-line learning then this problem should be managed appropriately without the implied lack of trust and paternalism of having people in empty rooms when they could be working from their home environment.”

©2020 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.