August 06, 2020MEREDITH — The Inter-Lakes School Board approved recommendations for school reopening including giving families the option of virtual or in-person learning while a number of parents expressed divided opinions on the proposal.
The school board approved the proposed plan during a special board meeting held in the Inter-Lakes Middle/High School parking lot.
Board chair Richard Hanson said the overall view for reopening the schools is to maximize student and faculty safety as much as possible and provide students the best educational experience possible.
"I feel confident of one thing as we start this discussion and that one thing is we're not going to please everybody," Hanson said. "We're not going to be able to do everything we might like to do and we're just going to try to do the best that we can and be as flexible as we can to meet the needs as they may confront us."
Superintendent Mary Moriarty said the plan was compiled after committee discussions, guidance from the state Department of Health and Human Services, public input, and other information.
Overall she said they want to make sure they stay absolutely flexible with any decisions and situations can change any time during the school year depending on the situation with the virus in the community.
The district will offer two different learning models that parents can decide to take part in: virtual and in person learning.
The Inter-Lakes Virtual Academy will utilize Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS), which is now offering K-6 learning options on request of the Department of Education. Moriarty said students in this program will still have opportunities to connect with their peers.
The physical in-person model will have four different stages that the district can move between depending on the COVID-19 situation including full person instruction, reducing the school population at one time, partial virtual learning with in-person options for students with certain needs, and a full virtual model. The decision on these modes will be made by a COVID-19 decision making team comprised of school board members, administrators staff members, healthcare experts, and others.
"We are going to have to be nimble," Moriarty said. "Whatever decision we make today might not be the decision we start with. That's the reality of our environment."
All students and staff in the buildings will have to wear a face mask or a clear face shield, though cannot use masks with valves. There will be mask breaks scheduled outside. All desks will have to be three to six feet apart and facing in one direction. Meals will be eaten in classrooms or outside and not in the cafeterias. Protocols will be put in place for one-way hallways, including having groups of students go outside under adult supervision and reentering through another door.
There will be regular cleaning and disinfection in the buildings. The ventilation system will also be evaluated and a number of activities will be scheduled outside if possible.
Any students and staff will have to do a health screening before coming into the school. Anyone who is sick at all, including having a small case of the sniffles, will be advised to not come in and follow certain protocols.
Field trips will be limited to local counties and a number of regular field experiences will be suspended for the time being.
With more of a focus on core academics, elective class options will be cut down in the Middle/High School.
If there is any confirmed case of COVID-19 in any of the schools, the whole district will shut down and learning will go fully virtual until the decision making team evaluates the impact of infection.
School sports will continue as per NHIAA guidelines with caveats including forfeiting games in areas with high infection rates, regulations for spectators, livestreaming options, and health screenings for players.
Because of the nature of the situation, Moriarty proposed hiring an additional school nurse
Parents will be strongly encouraged to find their own transportation if possible. There will be extra bus runs to ensure social distancing.
The meeting received a lot of public comment with opinions mixed on the plan and the situation.
Several people said under the circumstances school being entirely virtual this year, citing the potential risks to students, staff members, and everyone else who they could infect.
"Have you started a draft to the letter to parents when the first community member dies?" said Ashley Dunn of Meredith. "Will the school year 2021 start with a moment of silence for the people that we've lost? These are decisions we're making in a parking lot...Going back to school is terrifying, and I don't have any trust that it's going to be safe."
A number of parents, however, said students would benefit way more by that in person instruction. Some parents shared how their children struggled with remote learning.
Some people also cited the low number of COVID-19 cases in the district area, saying the chances of anyone in the schools getting this virus are low.
"When the rate of infection is next to nil, we do have a better chance of getting struck by lightning or getting hit by a car honestly," said Doug Hentz of Meredith.
Most who spoke opposed using VLACS for the virtual model and urged the board to have IL faculty members conduct this remote learning. Moriarty said they would not be able to hold full in-person instruction if teachers were running remote learning. She said, however, that could change depending on the situation and what options parents choose.
Some parents opposed that students would be required to wear masks and said students shouldn't have to wear masks in the classroom if they're already socially distanced. Some said masks could make students anxious and cut down on communication between teachers and kids. Others countered that masks are necessary to protect others' health and reduce the virus' spread.
Several parents advocated for sports to continue, saying their children thrive when doing sports and are motivated to do well academically when they play. Some said even if the district doesn't offer sports, many students have already and will take part in teams and clubs outside of school where they could play against students from areas with more COVID-19 impact. A few others said sports need to be shut down for the time being or kept to games inside the school.
Members of the school board voiced support for the plan, especially its flexible nature.
Board member Nancy Starmer said while her ideal would be to have distance learning, she said it would also be ideal if a lot of students and families were in the academic, financial, and mental health position to greatly benefit from it though that is not the case for many.
The board unanimously approved the recommendations.