CONCORD, N.H. — New Hampshire will not require any schools to reopen this fall, but is offering guidance on how districts can do so safely.
Gov. Chris Sununu on Tuesday outlined recommendations for screening, social distancing, hygiene and other safety measures aimed at preventing further spread of the coronavirus.
While President Donald Trump is demanding that schools resume in-person instruction, New Hampshire is leaving it to each school district to decide whether to fully return to the classroom, continue with remote instruction or combine those two options.
“We feel very confident that all students can come back to the classroom in a safe, healthy and productive manner, in a practical way,” Sununu said. “We also appreciate that in some districts, it could be because of staffing, it could be because of public health anxiety — maybe the rate of COVID starts to skyrocket in one town versus another — we want them to have that flexibility.”
The 54-page roadmap released Tuesday includes information about rearranging classrooms to maximize social distancing, screening of staff and visitors and other precautions. Schools that do reopen must provide accommodations for students and educators who are not able to return due to underlying health concerns. Masks will be required for all outside visitors, including parents, and strongly encouraged for staff and students under certain circumstances, for example, when within 3 feet (1 meter) of each other during group activities.
"Schools are going to be safe. They really are," Sununu said. "These protocols and guidance were designed with one thing in mind: Safety for those kids. And that's what gives us a lot of confidence in that we will be successful. It's practical, it's flexible, and it's also designed for feedback."
Dr. Ben Chan, the state epidemiologist, acknowledged that some of the recommendations are inconsistent with previous advice to wear face coverings when within 6 feet (2 meters) of others. But he said, taken as a whole, the guidance is built upon layers of protection.
“I almost think about this as a Swiss cheese model. Each layer has holes. No layer is going to be 100% effective at preventing transmission, but when you put the layers together, the goal is to minimize the risk to staff, to children in the classroom, while trying to maximize the educational benefit of bringing students back to class,” Chan said.
The state has directed funding to school districts to help pay for PPE and other COVID-related costs, Sununu said.
"It's all about success," Sununu said. "We just want to set ourselves up for the highest rate of success that we can. It's not about institutions, it's just about these kids, getting them back into a good, productive learning environment."
Sununu initially ordered all schools to close for three weeks starting March 16, and later extended that for the remainder of the academic year. The new guidance emphasizes that the pandemic “has created a traumatic event in the lives of students and educators” and urges school staff to support their social and emotional needs.
"Schools will need to model a sense of calmness and self-assurance to their students as they enter the school year," the guidance states.
Sununu said no one can guarantee that schools won't have COVID-19 outbreaks when they reopen.
"That wouldn't be practical," he said. "But we are saying that we have the tools to manage, quickly identify, to segregate those individuals, quarantine them. To make sure there's hopefully not an outbreak to the rest of the classroom or school or anything of that nature."
Madeline Hughes contributed to this report.