Guidance from Sununu and Edelblut leaves schools to fend for themselves   

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Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.

As a lifelong Manchester resident and educator with over 30 years of experience teaching and serving in administrative roles at the New Hampshire Department of Education and Southern New Hampshire University, I am deeply concerned with the guidance Governor Sununu issued on Tuesday which I believe will not be enough to keep our students and teachers safe from COVID-19 if they go back to school.

First, the guidance Sununu released defers the responsibility and related costs of keeping our children safe to school districts. Local control is paramount to New Hampshire’s school districts – however, it is the responsibility of Sununu and Edelblut to issue a necessary guide to keep our students and teachers safe. Given the increased risks of having children in school due to COVID-19 which is highlighted by the CDC, the NH Science and Public Health Task Force said that students can go back to school only if the correct safety measures are put in place, like masks and a minimum of six-feet of distancing are in place. However, instead of mandating masks that would help reduce the spread of any illnesses, Sununu is placing that decision on school districts by making them optional for classrooms and on school buses. And, Sununu only recommends placing desks three-to-six-feet apart despite the CDC guidance that says space seating and desks should be at least six-feet apart.

There are 13,585 students enrolled in Manchester public schools, if we are going to allow students to go back to school, the guidance must make six feet the minimum spacing requirement and a mask mandate must be issued unless a student is physically unable to wear one because of a medical issue. I would not feel comfortable having Manchester’s students or teachers in classrooms without masks.

Second, Sununu did not include nearly enough input from New Hampshire’s legislators. Many are career educators and local stakeholders who could have provided guidance to Sununu and Edelblut that would actually keep our students and teachers safe. Instead, the Sununu Administration’s school reopening plan was written by a consulting firm hired by President Trump’s U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Third, the guidance did not adequately address how schools will get resources to meet the new requirements. The guidance says schools should ensure that HVAC systems are working properly and are increasing the circulation of exterior air as much as possible, but our schools lacked adequate HVAC before the pandemic. It says that masks should be worn and the Granite Staters can find a mask almost anywhere, but throughout New Hampshire, some industries and sectors are facing a PPE shortage and long term care facilities even received defective PPE from the federal government. Based on his plan, too much of the responsibility to get protective equipment will fall on teachers and school administrators.

Finally, the guidance did not adequately address the needs of teachers who are at high risk. One-in-four teachers are at a greater risk of contracting a serious illness if infected with COVID-19. When asked about substitute teachers, Sununu acknowledged we will need more but he doesn’t have a plan to hire them, and New Hampshire was already struggling to hire substitute teachers before the COVID-19 pandemic. To go into this crisis without a plan if teachers get sick is irresponsible and shows a deep lack of understanding as to how New Hampshire’s school system works. In addition, online instruction will continue to be a necessity, schools need additional funding to purchase the necessary technology and to train teachers on the best strategies for online instruction.

We cannot talk about schools reopening without also addressing the unreasonable and dangerous demands coming from President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Sununu said that the decision to send students back to school in the fall was not in response to the demands of Trump and DeVos that states fully reopen schools in the fall. However, as they continue to push for schools to fully reopen, Sununu needs to state unequivocally that if school districts decide not to fully reopen in the fall, they will not face any repercussions from Donald Trump or Betsy DeVos. Federal funding must not be diverted.

Commissioner Edelblut said, “Nothing can ever eliminate all risk, but we must balance that risk with the need to educate New Hampshire children.” The risk Commissioner Edelblut is talking about is the risk of a child or teacher returning to school and contracting a potentially fatal COVID-19 infection at a time when the number of COVID-19 cases among young people is increasing. The health and safety of our teachers, students, and parents are not risks I believe are worth taking.

Beg to differ? Agree to disagree? Thoughtful submissions on topics of interest are welcome. Send to, subject line: The Soapbox.

State Representative Mary Heath was the former Dean of the School of Education at Southern New Hampshire University, Deputy Commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Education, and she has over 30 years of experience as a teacher, a learning disabilities specialist, and assistant superintendent. She is currently serving the people of Manchester’s Ward 7 in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. 

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