The ‘new’ school year
Families and educators face obstacles as they go back to school in a year like no other
Sarah Beauregard, of Concord, won’t be sending her four children off on the school bus this year. Like thousands of other parents across the state, her children — entering grades 1, 3, 5 and 7 — will start the school year taking classes online at home.
The Concord School District is one of several districts in the state that has announced a virtual start to school for most students, leaving Beauregard responsible for facilitating lesson plans for all four kids — two who currently have Individual Education Plans and one who has a 504 Plan.
“Now I work full-time and took the CARES Leave Act to be able to take care of my children,” she said. “I will have to quit my job in September. There is nowhere for the kids to go.”
Beauregard had looked into sending her children to private school, but none of the private schools in her area had nurses on staff who could administer the inhalers and nebulizer treatments her daughter Addison, 8, requires to control severe asthma.
She also is concerned that sending her other children to private school might potentially expose Addison to the virus, and also compromise her mother, who is undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer.
A former high school teacher, Beauregard feels equipped to guide her children’s learning, but anticipates challenges balancing the educational needs of all four kids.
Her mother, who she calls her No. 1 helper, is unable to assist with child care. Each child has unique learning needs. In addition to her asthma, Addison has an IEP for reading and short-term memory challenges. Fifth-grader Emerson, 10, has Asperger’s and performs above grade level; however, he needs extra support with some behaviors. Seventh-grader Madison, 12, has an IEP similar to Addison’s — but is performing close to grade level after more than two years of private tutoring.
“My stressor is mostly related to the IEPs and having no support. Do I play protector or let the kids’ education come first?” she said. “I am juggling so much; I feel like I am going to drop everything.”
New financial concerns also factor into Beauregard’s concern about exposing her family to the coronavirus. When she ultimately quits her office manager job, she’ll lose the health benefits for her family. Her husband’s health plan has a high deductible, and she anticipates they will instead opt to pay for a COBRA health plan through her employer until she gets her job back. She’s been working at a restaurant part-time to make ends meet and will miss her day job.
“It’s a perfect storm,” she said. ‘I know deep down it’s best for the kids and everyone. Being their teacher at school plus their special education and parent…it’s a lot.”
Londonderry is planning a full-time back-to-school start for the elementary and middle school grades, but will require all students to wear masks and practice social distancing, a difficult feat for many students with special needs.
Irene Oriani was able to work with educators in her district to ensure her second grader will get the services he needs in an environment he can best learn in. Her son, Steven, 7, has Down Syndrome. At school this fall, he will receive occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy services daily from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. in a self-contained classroom with a small group of special education peers.
Before Steven’s class went remote in the spring, he was part of a regular classroom, which he left to obtain services when needed. Oriani knew he would not be able to perform well in this type of setting with PPE and social distancing requirements, so she proposed an idea that will work for Steven and other students with significant special needs.
“I am super fortunate to live in a town where they are able to accommodate us,” Oriani said. I feel heard and actually received an email from our superintendent for my idea (a half-day special education classroom).”
Right now, Steven is practicing getting used to wearing a mask, which will still be required in his classroom. Because he loves Halloween, Oriani is referring to his Mickey Mouse mask as part of his costume. His teachers and therapists will be wearing face shields and fun hats to make it less intimidating to the students, she said.
While she is somewhat nervous about Steven re-entering the classroom, she has carefully weighed the risks vs. reward. Overall, social interaction will benefit Steven. He was non-verbal until age 6 and is used to socializing with other kids.
“In terms of meeting his IEP requirements, his social development has always been closest to typical,” she said. “He’s a super social kid.”
Awaiting a final decision
For those parents who are teachers, navigating school schedules adds another layer of complexity. Heather Levasseur, a library media specialist for the Farmington School District, has been working on developing professional development material with her school’s technical specialist to help teachers shift to Google Classroom.
Farmington will start 100% online in the fall, with some students with IEPs and 504 plans receiving services in the school. Levasseur is unsure if she will be reporting back to work at her school or teaching remotely from home.
At the same time, Levasseur’s two children will be attending Seacoast Charter School in Dover on a hybrid schedule, in which they will attend school two days per week and engage in remote learning during the other three days.
If her family opted to leave the school for a private option, they’d lose their spots next year. At the same time, Levasseur’s husband works remotely with clients from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day and would not be able to facilitate a 100% virtual program — which the school also is offering — for their kids.
“When I managed my kids’ learning this spring in between my own teaching, my mom helped out. Now I’ll be in school and she is immunocompromised and doesn’t feel as comfortable assisting as she did prior,” Levasseur said. “I might have to take FMLA one to two days a week. It’s really hard to make a concrete decision as there are so many unknown variables at the moment.”
Happy to be back
Adelyn Smith, 8, was one of the first students to go back to school in New Hampshire in August. A third-grader at the Maple Street Magnet School in Rochester, she attended full-time with the rest of her classmates beginning Aug. 11.
Her brother, Caden, 13, will be attending Rochester Middle School when it opens up full-time in September, too.
“They both wanted to 100% go back,” said their mother, Stephanie Smith, who runs a home child care. “I think the schools put a lot of planning and effort into making it as safe as possible. For their mental health, they need to be back in school. Their biggest concern was that the masks would be uncomfortable — and my daughter said it wasn’t a big deal.”
Smith said while she could have accommodated virtual learning, in-person learning is the best choice for her kids. Her daughter got a spot at the Maple Street Magnet School through a lottery system.
“They are still allowing kids outside and the fresh air is great for them … they can take their masks off and eat snacks,” Smith said. “People are way over-thinking things.”
District determines format, prompting pushback
Depending upon which one of the more than 100 public school districts your child attends in New Hampshire, their back-to-school experience could be vastly different from a friend who lives one district over.
Like Concord, the districts of Nashua, Dover, Exeter, and Somersworth have planned mostly 100% virtual starts to school.
The Manchester School District, Oyster River School District, SAU 5, (Durham); and Winnacunnet School District, SAU 21, (Hampton); are opening the school partially, allowing students in the lower grades to follow a hybrid model while older grades start virtually. (Editor’s note: At press time, some school districts were still evaluating their final plans to return to school and/or addressing legal challenges.)
Others, such as Merrimack and Bedford, are proposing hybrid starts — in which students attend only two days a week in-person — for all grades. Only a handful of districts, including Salem, Londonderry, and Rochester, are asking parents to choose between a traditional full-day, full-week start or a fully virtual model.
Decisions to both re-open or remain virtual at some districts have caused teachers, parent groups, and school boards to reverse earlier decisions.
Rochester’s original back-to-school plan prompted parents and teachers to appeal their school board’s original decision to allow students to fully return to school or sign up for online classes through the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS), New Hampshire’s virtual online school.
The superintendent had originally stated that the district’s contract did not allow teachers to teach classes virtually and online, precluding it from offering a hybrid option or a virtual option delivered by its teachers, according to an article in Foster’s Daily Democrat.
At the same time, VLACS announced it was reaching capacity and would not be able to provide virtual learning to meet the needs of all in the state — leaving parents unsure of their options.
A second school board meeting included teacher and parent pushback against both options, with a request for reconsideration after five hours of testimony and discussion. At press time, the Rochester School District was working through those options — administering an additional parent survey to determine how it would accommodate students seeking a remote option which could include its own teachers providing online classes, Foster’s reported.
Karen Stokes, an eight-year veteran of the Rochester School Board, voted against fully opening the school twice and would have preferred a hybrid option. Her son, AJ, 17, has an autism diagnosis and requires a one-to-one paraprofessional.
Because he has sensory issues due to autism, wearing a mask all day at school simply wouldn’t work, she said. Instead, she’d prefer that he receive services like OT and speech therapy at school — something VLACS does not provide. Right now, there is no one at the school to help AJ determine what services he can access, she said.
“As parents we used to have choices. If you don’t like Dunkin’ Donuts, you could go to Starbucks. When our options are limited, it’s a stressful issue,” she said.
Other districts, such as SAU 16, which includes Exeter and surrounding towns, had originally planned to open, but then reversed its decision to propose a fully remote model in a later meeting based on medical data.
“While positive case numbers remain low in the Greater Exeter area, the COVID Threat Level for Rockingham County as maintained by Covid Act Now was just increased from Slow Disease Growth to At Risk. The next level on this threat scale is Active or Imminent Outbreak. The metrics indicate that there is a rise in the number of daily new cases and an ongoing spread of infection listed as medium spread. Our understanding is that this is a forecast for an incoming second surge that, combined with influenza when the weather turns, will have a grave impact on any in-person SAU operations in the near future,” wrote David Ryan, superintendent of SAU 16, in a letter sent to parents on Aug. 7.
At press time, parents had joined together to form a group pushing back against the decision. Their private Facebook group, Majority Voices of SAU 16, includes more than 220 members. It states, “This group is created for and by the parents of SAU 16, whose voices have been silenced. There is zero shame in wanting what’s best for the educational, mental, and physical wellbeing of our children.”
Nearly 200 parents in the Town of Stratham, part of the SAU, have also signed a petition to break from the reopening plans put forward by the SAU.
“We, the following parents of Stratham Memorial School students, are dissatisfied, but more importantly, disappointed, with the lack of creativity, communication and transparency demonstrated by SAU-16,” the petition reads. “While multiple task forces were convened to explore options for the upcoming academic year, within a two-week period, two dramatically different plans were announced. Surprisingly, neither plan incorporated a hybrid solution, which would represent ingenuity, compromise and middle ground.”
Krysten Godfrey Maddocks is a former journalist and marketing director who now regularly writes for higher education and technology organizations in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Krysten won three awards — gold, silver and bronze — for writing from the Parenting Media Association in 2020.