SALEM, N.H. — District officials have received a long list of questions from teachers in preparation for returning to school in the midst of a pandemic.

For about an hour Thursday afternoon more than 300 teachers logged into a Zoom town hall with Superintendent Michael Delahanty and Assistant Superintendents Maura Palmer and Debbie Payne. 

Jim Slobig, president of the Salem Education Association teachers union, asked the anonymous questions he's received from teachers in recent days.

There were too many questions to answer them all during the one-hour Zoom session, according to Delahanty and Slobig. Slobig said he would focus on asking the questions that would most impact a teacher's choice to return to school: In what circumstances will masks be required? What cleaning would teachers have to do? What protections for teachers are in place?

Teachers must let the district know about their intentions to return to school for the upcoming year by Monday.

Workers' rights laws allow teachers to opt-out of returning to school if they or a family member has a documented underlying medical condition that makes them more susceptible to a bad case of the virus, or if they have an issue with childcare related to the pandemic, Delahanty said.

Teachers who meet those requirements are going to be the first allowed to work remotely and be paired with students who choose remote learning, Delahanty said.

"The intent is to simply match the students who are not going to return with the staff that cannot return. ... There's a distinction between can and cannot," he said. "You said the teachers who 'choose to teach in a remote environment.' We are not prepared to allow that choice just yet."

If there is a greater demand for online learning than teachers who are able to accommodate them, more teachers will be asked about their preference for working in schools or remotely, Delahanty said.

"We are hopeful that our teachers who can't return and the students who won't return will come out ideally matched," Delahanty said. "Then we will look at the pool of teachers who are reluctant or really fearful to return, if we can provide them with the option of teaching from home."

If a teacher does wish to return to classroom teaching because of an issue with childcare, district officials can help find a solution, Delahanty said. 

Teachers can also potentially ask for a leave of absence or to retire early, but benefits will be determined by the union contract and the school board, Delahanty explained. 

“(Early retirement) has been asked once and it’s been denied with the benefit," Delahanty said.

Teachers shared concerns with Slobig about "masks being removed even in a classroom, even in a plexiglass shield. Can a teacher require masks even in a plexiglass shied?”

It is a districtwide rule that a person behind one of the shields does not have to wear a mask, Delahanty said.

“We are not going to allow individuals to make those decisions," he said.

In classrooms where there is more movement and students might not be at desks, like a science lab, masks can be required, he said.

Extra custodians will be on staff to disinfect high-touch areas during the day, and students at the middle school and high school will be asked to disinfect their areas before leaving class, Payne said.

Teachers "don’t need to do anything additional,” she said.

Woodbury's ventilation system is the oldest in the district, and officials have decided to ask teachers to keep windows open to allow extra airflow, Delahanty said. The renovation project will also continue on schedule, with work expected to begin in February or March 2021, he said.  

Woodbury's “air handlers are not ineffective, they are not efficient," he said. There could be additional requirements for wearing masks, especially in windowless rooms, he added.

Teachers and other adults in the school system will have access to various protective items, like masks and face shields, Payne said. 

Teachers will also not be asked to teach remotely and in-person with some exceptions for high school electives, Delahanty said. 

Delahanty has promised transparency during the process of getting back into school for everyone involved. A parent town hall is scheduled for July 21.

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