DERRY — After the school board approved its Roadmap for Reopening Schools plan last month to return students to the classroom, some updates and revisions on safety measures and protocols are now in place.
That includes now requiring face masks for all students, staff and visitors unless there are special accommodations for students approved by the district.
Face coverings/masks will need to be removed for snacks and lunch times and also for hydration breaks throughout the day with students always maintaining a six-foot distance during those times.
Members of the Derry Cooperative School District Comprehensive Task Force presented its options last month for ways to safely reopen the district's schools.
Any plan put in place also has to be ready to pivot at a moment’s notice due to changes in COVID-19 numbers, officials added. School is scheduled to begin Aug. 31.
Members of the Derry Education Association, or DEA, have been pushing back on the plan, with many teachers holding signs outside Gilbert H. Hood Middle School prior to the July 28 vote, saying they didn't feel the plan put enough safety measures in place for both staff and students.
That includes keeping children at safe distances from teachers and each other.
Business Administrator Jane Simard said at the most recent board meeting that, depending on the number of children returning to in-person learning, the distancing between desks in classrooms could be four feet or up to five feet or more to maintain safety guidelines.
All desks would be facing the same direction and students would remain in their own cohorts, or groups for the day.
And schools would be prepared, Simard added, with hand sanitizers, signs showing distancing guidelines, extensive amounts of personal protective gear for staff and students, including masks, gloves, and goggles.
Superintendent MaryAnn Connors-Krikorian said as of Aug. 11, about 74% of families had said they preferred sending their students back to in-person learning; 22.4% picked the alternate remote learning option and 2.7% would not be sending their children back in any form to the Derry district.
As for using bus transportation, 35% of families responded they would be using the bus for both morning and afternoon transportation while 55.8% as of Aug. 11 said they would not be using the bus.
"I know for some this is a very difficult decision," Connors-Krikorian said.
Prior to the most recent board meeting, the teachers union sent a statement once again "demanding" that safety be the top priority when deciding when and how to return students to school.
"We already have seen some adjustments in the Road Map to Reopening Schools," the statement read, "however, the DEA still does not feel as though the measures go far enough to ensure safety for everyone."
During the board meeting, DEA president Meg Morse-Barry once again reiterated that many teachers were not feeling safe.
"The landscape of COVID has changed dramatically," Morse-Barry said, adding states like Georgia and other hot spots around the nation were seeing school opening efforts fail in a short time. "We don't feel confident we have the answers to implement this plan safely."
Morse-Barry along with other DEA officials, read excerpts from letters submitted by teachers and staff with their concerns.
Some letters accused board members of not taking the time to answer concerns or even step foot inside an actual classroom to see the space.
Board member Brenda Willis said she had been inside schools.
"I have been inside every school to see the desks, I have sat in desks, I wanted to see what it was like," she said. "Is it what we left? Absolutely not. But families want their kids back in school, we need to educate our children. I know it's hard, but once we get there it will be easier."
Board member Michelle McKinnon said having a high percentage already of families saying they will send their children back is a clear message.
"It's a tell-tale sign they feel safe and secure," McKinnon said. "I appreciate and value all our teachers, but I think our families have spoken."
Board member Erika Cohen supports the reopening plan and said every profession has a risk.
"The option we gave was choice," she said. "I've listened to (teachers), I responded to you. You signed on to do a job and these kids need you."