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Board rejects motion to reopen schools full time


November 19, 2020
WOLFEBORO — The Governor Wentworth Regional School District (GWRSD) school board rejected a motion by New Durham's school board member, Julianne Cardinal, on Nov. 9 to reopen the schools full time beginning Jan. 19. The 6 – 3 vote followed a presentation by Superintendent Kathy Cuddy-Egbert on the metrics within the district's current reopening plan, the reduction in Covid-19 mitigation (social distancing down to three feet), and the staffing and financial repercussions of moving from the hybrid plan to full time with a remote option.

The board's decision made during the October meeting to remain with the hybrid model through December remains in place.

The primary influence right now, said Cuddy-Egbert on Monday evening, is staffing. Fifteen to 16 staff members are in quarantine. The affected schools (New Durham Elementary and Middleton Elementary) so far have been able to remain open with affected classrooms switching to remote. However, the teachers were too sick to provide instruction for a few days and substitutes are in very short supply.

So far, she explained, the unanticipated costs due to the pandemic have come to $638,662. The state did pass along an initial $539,000 of CARES Act money, but a portion is required to go to private schools, leaving an actual amount received of $464,998. That leaves the district $173,000 in the negative.

Even if the state does get a state grant, it still won't cover the full amount of the current shortfall in addition to additional costs, stated Cuddy-Egbert.

A move to full reopening with a remote option is projected to add an additional $400,000 for staffing to respond to the need to break classes up and add classes to at least maintain 3 foot social distancing and take care of the expected increase in students engaged in remote learning. The district, already short of bus drivers, would have to repurpose special education bus drivers and contract out for drivers at an anticipated cost of $85,000. Custodial services to handle double the volume of students, would add an additional 24 hours of service, which would cost around $46,000.

Hiring additional staff is problematical in itself, considering the district is already advertising for around 30 positions.

Cardinal said her intent in making a motion to move to full opening is to give choice back to parents. In discussion, Wolfeboro board member Charlene Seible remarked, "Something of this magnitude should not be left to people who elected us to make tough decisions. I cannot support it."

Seible also asked who is making the decisions for the staff members. Chairman Jack Widmer said the administration would have to know how many will switch to remote.

"We could have a significant number of teachers (based on an earlier survey) wanting to switch," he predicted.

And all classrooms would have to be set up for full return during Christmas break.

Effingham member Jim Pittman said he felt the motion was premature, and asked how long would it take to make it happen. Surveys would have to be put together by the next ten days in order to hear parents' choices and find necessary staff by the proposed Jan. 19 start of full reopening, responded Widmer. "There is a huge element of uncertainty, " commented Pittman.

Dr. Jim Manning, of Brookfield, wondered about liability to the district for Covid-19 transmission considering a reduction to three-foot social distancing, which Widmer reminded the board represented a quadrupling of risk, according to medical authorities.

Decision making is taking place against a backdrop of increasing Covid-19 transmission in towns sending students to GWRSD schools, including the Lakes Region Technology Center. As of Tuesday, Nov. 10, Brookfield's numbers took a leap to 10 active cases, bringing the cumulative number to 11; Ossipee has five active with 21 cumulative total; Alton - 9 active, 41 total; New Durham - 7 active, 18 total; Wolfeboro - 5 active, 23 total; Effingham 0 active, 6 total; Middleton - 6 active, 14 total; Moultonborough - 1-4 active, 24 total and Tuftonboro 1- 4 active, 1-4 total.

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