MANCHESTER, NH – Barring the unforeseen, all public-school students in the Queen City will be physically returning to school for a few days a week in the next few weeks.
In a unanimous vote, the Manchester Board of School Committee (BOSC) approved a proposal by Manchester School District Superintendent Goldhardt seeking to return all students into a hybrid learning situation by mid-November.
Currently, kindergarten, pre-school and first-grade students are already in a hybrid learning format, with some in-person and some remote learning. Students at Manchester School of Technology, some English Language Learner students and some students with Individualized Education Plans are also currently in a hybrid system.
However, all other students are still learning in an entirely remote format, something Goldhardt said was causing anxiety, depression and a lack of interest in learning according to many desperate parents he’s heard from.
That, along with new cleaning and safety infrastructure at the schools as well as a recent drop in COVID-19 figures in the city led him to recommend the move.
Goldhardt recommended bringing back one grade per week amongst Grade K to 8 schools, with Parkside Middle School’s status on the West Side as the only four-grade middle school currently in the city creating three sets of returning grades.
On the week of Oct. 12, the return will begin with elementary schools seeing the return of second-grade students, Parkside seeing the return of fifth-grade students and the three other middle schools seeing the return of sixth-grade students.
Over the next two weeks at West Side elementary schools and middle schools other than Parkside, successive grades will return one week at-a-time. A third week, the week of Nov. 2, will bring back fifth-grade elementary classes on the East Side and eighth-graders at Parkside.
High school is a different matter. Freshmen are expected back Oct. 26 at Manchester West, Central and Memorial, with other students back on Nov. 9. However, Manchester’s high school principals voiced a note of concern that staffing levels could not be guaranteed to be ready.
Unlike elementary and middle schools, the principals informed the BOSC that many high school classes require teachers with specialized training, meaning the loss of certain teachers could severely hinder school return plans for many students.
Like kindergarten teachers several weeks earlier, many high school teachers are also eligible for Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and other benefits due to health risk factors, pressing human resource officers in the district to the limit.
Those factors along with the fear of potential new infections among high school staff left the principals concerned that many classes would not be available for students and remaining teachers would be pushed to their limits as the high schools seek to meet their obligations of student supervision on campus at all times.
Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig voiced frustration with a lack of progress on staffing plans in place after weeks of work, but Manchester Central principal John Vaccarezza indicated that more stress testing is still needed to see whether projected staffing levels will be feasible for hybrid learning by the Superintendent’s projected timeline.
Any parents seeking to keep their students in full remote learning, including full remote learning with offline materials, could be accommodated according to Goldhardt.
For Dr. Nicole Leapley (Ward 11), the difficulty in staffing projects came as a result of the district being denied the resources it has needed over the past 20 years, preventing the development of a qualified pool of paraprofessional teachers and substitute teachers.