LONDONDERRY — Some were parents worried about what the new school year might look like. Others were educators hoping to return to the classroom, but only if it’s safe for both students and teachers.
With many questions still on the minds of many in the Londonderry School District, decisions on how to safely reopen the district’s six schools this fall took center stage last week during a public forum at the high school gymnasium.
Parents, teachers, administrators and school board members gathered safely to offer more thoughts and concerns on what the district’s plan might look like, with decisions still to be made and much input to be considered prior to making those decisions.
Londonderry administrators presented an overview of a school reopening plan at a school board meeting last week, telling the board it’s a plan created to also be adaptable to changing circumstances due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A big piece of the reopening puzzle is making sure safety guidelines are followed, focusing on national and state health/safety information and recommendations, while also tailoring Londonderry’s plan to be specific to the district. The plan also includes a clear response if or when anyone in the school system is infected with the virus.
The plan stresses safe distancing in classrooms, recommended wearing of masks for students and staff, keeping students to specific cohorts or groupings during the day, more block scheduling, less changing of classes and movement throughout various buildings, and how to handle extra curricular activities, sports, music, physical education, dining services and transportation.
Several options are being considered, from an in-person return, continued remote instruction, or a hybrid return with students attending at different times.
A survey was sent to help gauge the feelings of the district.
School Superintendent Scott Laliberte said the district’s preferred approach would be an in-person return along with remote instruction, giving families a choice of how they would like to move forward based on their own concerns.
Many supported a more hybrid approach to opening schools, having less students in the buildings at one time and helping keep better and safer distances.
Londonderry teacher Jennifer LaBranche, also representing Londonderry’s education association, said teachers want to be back in the classroom.
She said after the board presentation last week, she has been inundated with calls, texts and emails from fellow educators afraid to return.
“We all know we have amazing and dedicated teachers in Londonderry,” LaBranche said, adding a majority would not feel safe coming back if masks were not mandated for all.
“That would greatly reduce the chances of any staff member or student getting sick,” she said. “All of us want to return to the way it was, but the reality is, school will not be the same until there is no fear of this virus.”
Brian Courtemanche has taught 24 years in the Londonderry district and said he favored a more hybrid approach where less students would be in buildings during the day.
“I love my job,” Courtemanche said. “I want to go back.”
He questioned the safety at the high school if all students were to return at once.
“Try walking down the (high school) hallway, it’s shoulder to shoulder, bumper to bumper,” he said. “How are you going to social distance with 1,300 or 1,400 kids in there?”
A hybrid plan, Courtemanche said, could cut the number of students in the building at one time in half.
“I teach history and we are going to talk about COVID in 20 years,” he said. “I ask you, I beg you, to be on the right side of history. If you want to open schools, which I support, please do it responsibly.”
Katie Miller represented 20 families of students at Moose Hill School and said there are many concerns about how preschool and kindergarten students with special needs will be safely educated.
“Remote learning was extremely challenging for us,” she said.
Kim Carpinone, the district’s Director of Pupil Services, said all would be done to ensure the safety and continuing education and needed services for students with disabilities and other learning challenges.
“We will be having individualized meetings prior to Sept. 30, Carpinone said, “to talk about how remote learning impacted their progress.”
If the district had to return to remote learning full-time again, Carpinone said the district would do its best to continue all direct services to children.
Not everyone felt recommending masks was a good idea.
Ted Kus said science tells him that he would feel safe sending his children back to the classroom with no mask, citing information he gathered about a lower possibility of children spreading the virus and that there would be “nothing to fear.”
“I do not prefer to wear a mask,” Kus said. “Please return your children to school along with my own. Please reopen, I advocate, without social distancing, without masks, and without fear.”
Other speakers offered a wide range of concerns, from where a child would be placed if showing symptoms, safe distancing on buses and at the bus stops, and how ventilation systems would work in the buildings to maintain a cleaner flow of air.
Laliberte said all concerns would be taken into consideration prior to decisions being made and all is being done with the safety of both students and staff at the top of the list.
More information and decisions will come at school board meetings in August. Information on reopening plans are on the school district site at londonderry.org.