Hinsdale students could spend five days a week in classrooms

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HINSDALE, N.H. — Across the nation, schools are struggling with how to reopen this fall while keeping students safe from COVID-19. Things are no different in Hinsdale, as staff, faculty, parents and School Board members have spent the summer working out the details for a return to school.

During the Aug. 5 School Board meeting, Board member Holly Kennedy credited faculty, staff, administrators and the members of the reopening steering committee for doing "a monstrous amount of work" over the spring and summer to insure students are kept safe when they return to school.

At the meeting, the Board reviewed the steering committee's 64-page report that outlined the options, which included continuing with remote learning, allowing students to return to school, or some combination of both.

After talking about the report and voicing their views on the challenges facing the district, Board members voted 3-2 to reopen school this fall with full access for elementary students, and a plan to allow middle and high school students to have what is being called modified full access to their classes.

Kennedy noted that school boards across the country are struggling to make the right decision.

"The lack of national and state leadership, to put this on five volunteers, and multiply that around every district in the nation It's been a lot of soul searching, a lot of research, a lot of relying on experts and a lot of back and forth," said Kennedy.

"I don't think there is any right choice," said board member Jim O'Malley. "It's frustrating every district, every school board, every community in the country that has to go through this without a national plan."

The model outlined for middle and high school students is similar to those proposed in other districts in the region. Both in-class instruction and remote learning will be used during a standard five-day schedule, with class sizes limited to protect the health of both students and teachers. The modified format calls for a return to the classroom for any families desiring it, while also supporting students who prefer remote learning. Classes that exceed social distancing guidelines will be broken into two cohorts, according to the plan approved by the Board. Cohorts will alternate days between in-person instruction and days of alternate instruction or independent study elsewhere in the building.

However, said School Board Chairman Sean Leary during a phone call with the Reformer, the approved plan is not set in stone and could be modified before the year begins or after students are welcomed back into the halls of the schools.

"Lots of things will have to be worked out during implementation," said Leary. The plan might change a bit as well when the district knows how many students and staff members will be returning to the classrooms, he said.

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In the elementary school, which has more space for social distancing, students will attend classes five days a week with class sizes reflective of safety concerns. Masks for all students, staff and faculty will be required in both buildings, and individual health screening will be conducted before anyone will be allowed to enter the buildings. There will be exceptions for masks if a student has a medical condition that precludes the use of a mask.

During the Aug. 5 meeting, Leary and Kennedy voted against the plan, while O'Malley, Kaylah Hemlow, and Julia Kilelee voted for it.

Leary told the Reformer that despite his and Kennedy's no vote, the school board is united in making sure students receive an appropriate education while being kept safe. School administrators are expected to return to the School Board on Aug. 19 to present an implementation plan that reflects the Board's decision.

Leary acknowledged that no plan will satisfy everyone.

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"There is no one right answer," he said, especially when you have to juggle factors such as safety, physical distancing, the emotional and social development of the children and the economic pressures each family might be facing.

However, noted Leary, parents should know that whatever the number of students in each classroom, "We are going to take every precaution necessary."

What day the schools will actually open will have to be worked out with the unions representing teachers and staff members, said Leary.

Sarah Burgess, a special education teacher who is also the teacher's union representative, told the Reformer that despite the hard work done by everyone involved, she believes the School Board made the wrong decision, especially with the elementary school.

"It's not a matter of if some of them might get sick; it's a matter of when," she said. "Teachers are nervous, especially those of high risk or those with family members who are high risk."

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Nonetheless, said Burgess, teachers are ready to find a way to implement the Board's decision.

"We just have to work together and be patient with each other," she said. "One of the things I really like about Hinsdale is the administration is really good at asking for feedback from the teachers and the staff. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees when it comes to COVID."

Joe Boggio, the elementary school principal, told the Reformer he and his staff are excited but also cautious about getting a start to the new school year. The student count for sixth through 12th grade is approximately 280, but that could change depending on how many families decide to homeschool, he said. Boggio believes the elementary school can accommodate the students while protecting them because of a new addition made to the building two years ago.

But Boggio acknowledged the reality of educating students during a pandemic.

"At some point, we're going to have to be remote again," he said. "The virus is going to decide what we do in the future."

Middle/High School Principal Ann Freitag said the parents of about 250 kids have said they would like their children to return to some sort of in-person instruction this fall.

"We are expecting to be here five days a week," said Freitag. "I think we have the space."

Leary said the district has also developed a plan that will allow for some sports to be played this year. That plan calls for health checks of both home and visiting team members, physically distanced "pods" and mask requirements for spectators, regular use of hand sanitizer, and the removal of bleachers; spectators will be required to bring their own seating.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


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