At a N.H. school meeting, a parent asks, should 2 potential COVID student deaths dictate plans for an entire district?

"I think those sound like rhetorical questions."

Questions over mask wearing, band classes, and other concerns from parents about how COVID-19 could hamper yet another school year filled the air during a School Board meeting Monday in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.

But the back and forth between officials of the Governor Wentworth Regional School District and the inquisitive public came to a brief halt after a series of questions from a local mother of two.

“We have zero percent to a 0.3 percent death rate,” said Jessica Williams, among the parents who spoke during the evening’s public comment session. “And I know it’s not nice to talk about death — we don’t want any kids to die — but we’re talking about potentially two children that could die in this district, and you’re going to disrupt the lives of 2,398 children and their families so that potentially two kids can be saved?”

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Williams’s remarks followed a presentation by the district’s Reopening Task Force, charged with developing plans for the coming school year — a group navigating the same challenges educators across the country are grappling with for the back-to-school season during the coronavirus pandemic.

Superintendent Kathleen Cuddy-Egbert, in a July 30 letter to families, wrote that school leaders found they aren’t able to follow guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and still allow for schools to reopen for in-person, full-time learning.

On the table now is a “phase-in” plan, with options for parents to have their children start the school year with either a hybrid model of in-person and structured, remote learning at home; full-time remote learning; or homeschooling, the letter says.

A final decision as to what route the school system will take had not yet been made as of Monday. Another board meeting was scheduled for Thursday evening.

“This is certainly not an easy decision for us, and it’s certainly not an easy decision for you,” said Board Chair John Widmer during Monday’s meeting.

Parents in the district have favored opening schools. A survey conducted by administrators this summer found that 61 percent of families would like their students back at school in the fall.

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“The pandemic certainly has handed us some very, very tough choices. I think there’s no doubt that everyone wants all of our children back at school,” Cuddy-Egbert told attendees at the start of Monday’s two-plus-hour meeting. “Unfortunately we need to think about the balance of safety and what it means for them to be back.”

She added, “I can tell you from my emails that there are many different opinions about this — and very little agreement.”

For Williams, foregoing a return to the brick-and-mortar classrooms means continuing impacts to students’ mental health. She cited reports shared by the CDC about the toll remote learning takes on their educations, emotions, and social skills. And what about the kids who are abused at home, she asked.

But as she kicked off her time before the board, Williams, standing in an auditorium with mask-clad parents scattered around, offered some “simple math.”

Taking the district’s 2,400 students into account, along with the national 8.8 percent coronavirus infection rate among children — as noted by the American Academy of Pediatrics by July 30 — Williams estimated 212 children could feasibly contract the illness within the school system.

“So basically, school’s not going to happen, right, because you’re going to close the school, right, every time there’s an infection?,” she asked.

In New Hampshire, the coronavirus death rate for people ages zero to 29 is between zero and 0.2 percent, state data shows. (Although Williams said that at 0.3 percent, two children in the district could die if a total of 212 became sick, the numbers show that at 0.2 percent, mathematically, less than one child could potentially succumb to the virus.)

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No person in the Granite State under the age of 19 has died from COVID-19, records indicate. One death has been recored in the 20-29 age demographic.

Williams asked school officials why the lives of thousands of other students would be disrupted this school year “so that potentially two kids can be saved.”

“I don’t understand why we’re going to be doing this,” she said.

Williams also asked officials to provide attendance and student performance data to parents in real time and about what metrics are being used to evaluate teachers in the reopening plans.

At the end of her questions, light applause trickled in the audience.

After a few moments, Cuddy-Egbert spoke up. “I think those sound like rhetorical questions,” she said.

But the parents wanted answers.

Cuddy-Egbert offered another response: “In terms of — you know, I honestly, I don’t know what to say about the number of potential deaths. I think I’ll just leave that.”

School officials have read the CDC articles, and counselors have been reaching out to students who are at risk of being abused at home, she said. The district can provide Williams data as requested, and there is an evaluation system for teacher performance, Cuddy-Egbert said, also to a few claps from attendees.

“You really didn’t want to answer my questions, I understand,” Williams responded. “Answering questions is hard.”

She continued: “As a parent right now in the middle of all of this, watching your child suffer intellectually, socially, physically is not fun to watch. None of us want that, for any of our own children or for anyone else’s children. How can you involve parents more so that we can actually give feedback on the teachers’ performance because you know what?

“Sometimes my kid only saw their teacher for 30 minutes in an entire day,” she continued. “That is not OK. It is not acceptable, and we shouldn’t stand for it. What are you going to do about it?”

Cuddy-Egbert agreed. A half-hour is not acceptable.

But, the plan includes what the remote learning expectations are for teachers moving forward, she said.

Last spring, educators were “building the plane while we were flying it,” she added.

“I honestly think teachers did a remarkable job,” Cuddy-Egbert said. “Was it consistent across the district? No. Did everyone know exactly what should be done with every element of technology? No. But I think they did a remarkable job for what they were faced with.”

Board Vice Chair Wendi Fenderson said she can emphasize with Williams’s concerns and struggles.

Her own daughter missed out on now years of her college education due to her school being ill-equipped to quickly and effectively shift to remote learning when the pandemic hit New England, she said.

“Everyone is suffering, and it’s a nationwide thing. It’s not just here,” Fenderson said, looking out to the room. “And I think if we allow everyone patience and kindness and just feedback and — I think we’re doing the best that we can. I’m very proud to sit here. I’m very proud of the teachers. I’m very proud of the administration.”

She added, “It’s hard … I appreciate your feedback, but, you know, here, sitting on this board, yeah, we absolutely know what it feels like firsthand.”

Once again, some applause filled the room — and another parent took to the microphone with questions of her own.


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