Salem unveils plan to get back in classrooms

Madeline Hughes/ STAFF PHOTO The Salem School Board met in person Tuesday night, while following social distancing guidelines. 

SALEM, N.H. — It will be harder to pass notes in class as students return to school this fall in Salem.

There will be more hand sanitizer and most people will be expected to wear face coverings when returning for fall classes, according to the reopening plan approved by the Salem School Board Tuesday night. The plan will be posted on the district website Wednesday, according to the board. 

"We feel that we've provided an environment that is safe... but we are able to provide a (quality) online alternative for those unable to or unwilling to return," said Superintendent Michael Delahanty, while presenting the 18-page plan that was created by eight different work groups with about 100 staff members involved.

There will be health precautions such as extra hand sanitizer stations and hand-washing time along with social distancing and masks required at certain times, according to the plan. The district has also acquired transparent dividers to place around desks and at lunch tables to separate students. 

Students and staff will be required to wear masks on buses and in school. Each student will be given five reusable masks at the beginning of the year. However, Preschoolers thru first-graders will not have to wear masks while in school. Students will also be allowed to take off their masks while they are behind the transparent barriers.

Additional disposable masks will be available in classrooms for anyone who does not have a mask, according to the plan.

Looking at current science, masks have been a proven help to quell the spread of the virus, Delahanty said, explaining the requirement.

"I don't think this should be a political issue, but somehow it became one... we have to overlook some of the emotion that is felt on both sides," Delahanty said.

The school board accepted $415,583 in federal CARES funding to help the school pay for COVID-related expenses, such as masks and desk dividers for students.

"You come in, you wear a mask... you don't you go home to a distanced learning environment," Delahanty said.

Parents will be asked to monitor their students' potential symptoms if they get sick, and staff will individually be responsible for their health as well. There will not be temperature checks at school because of time restraints, according to the plan. Anyone who is sick is being asked to stay home at least 24-hours after their symptoms subside. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 will have to test negative before returning to school.

State guidance says that local districts don't have the latitude to close a whole school, however, reported positive cases directed to the state the public health nurse will determine the next steps, Delahanty explained.

"Whatever directive we are given by the state we will have to follow," Delahanty said. The district will be able to switch to remote learning if a classroom or school has to close quickly, he said. "Which is frankly a relief for us because we should be giving that information to health providers to make informed decisions."

To get to school, bus drivers will help maintain clean buses by sanitizing high-touch areas and everyone on buses will be required to wear a mask. Only two students will be allowed to share a seat, according to the plan. The district might expand the walking radius to a mile and a quarter instead of a mile if needed to accommodate buses, Delahanty said. An official decision will be made when the district knows who is returning or not.

District officials will also be concentrating on student well-being during the transition back to school, according to the plans. Each school will have certain team-building activities and extra training for staff to help students.

Staff are being given a survey so the district will know who is willing to return to school. Then parents will be asked if their students will be returning.

"We need to get that information to reconcile between students who want to return and staff who can, (physically) cannot and are not willing to return," Delahanty said.

For dealing with staff absences during the school year, the district is incentivizing substitutes by giving them regular schedules of certain days.

"We can always use the extra hands and they will be able to teach when needed," Delahanty said. "Providing stable work days for people will hopefully be an incentive."

There will be virtual town halls for staff and parents in the coming weeks to talk through questions in the plan, Delahanty said. Decisions on if students are coming back to school will need to be made by early August.

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