Reopening Schools Possible with Planning, Kindness and Community

aqua backpack on school desk

Child development cannot be put on hold. It’s not just the learning and the test scores that improve in school—it’s also socialization and the joy of discovery.

Steven H. Chapman, MD

When schools closed last spring due to COVID-19, parents, teachers and administrators of the pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade students in SAU 70—the nation’s first interstate school district serving Hanover, NH, and Norwich, VT—recognized multiple negative impacts of remote learning. The separation from peers and teachers was clearly affecting the mental health, motivation and overall well-being of many children. It was time to act. In June 2020, Superintendent Jay Badams created the multidisciplinary SAU 70 School Task Force to plan for in-person learning for the 2020-21 school year.

Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock (CHaD) pediatrician and SAU 70 physician Steven H. Chapman, MD, immediately volunteered to serve on the task force. Shortly afterward, Chapman formed a Physician Advisory Group of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health (D-HH) providers from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) and Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital, to work on directives related to school reopenings.

The task force selected the mission, “What’s Best for the Kids.” Chapman reports that the group of teachers, union representatives and school board members agreed to follow a three-pronged collaborative approach focused on data, kindness and community. “We committed to making data-driven decisions so we could deal with facts as much as possible, while also interacting with kindness–not just to keep each other safe, but to come together supportively as a community,” he explains.

During the summer, a series of school-specific town halls were held for teachers and staff. Hundreds of community members also participated in a districtwide virtual town hall with the school board. This gave teachers and parents alike the opportunity to share their concerns, feelings and input on the reopening process. Ultimately, the school board voted to reopen schools for in-person learning.

A successful plan

Following guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the task force developed the reopening plan, which includes mask-wearing, frequent handwashing, physical distancing and daily temperature checks (at home for elementary and middle school students and automated infrared temperature monitors at Hanover High School entrances). Outdoor learning recommendations introduced increased time outside when weather permitted, and teacher creativity promoted new ways of learning. For example, elementary students learned weights and measures in the forest using tennis balls and strings suspended from trees rather than using pendulums in classrooms. 

Alternatively, families could opt for remote learning and support was implemented for those students, but the district opened its schools for in-person learning only one week later than usual—and has been open continuously since then.

As a major COVID-19 testing site for the State of New Hampshire, DHMC agreed to provide all SAU 70 testing and contact tracing support. The task force initially recommended that anyone spending 15 minutes or more within six feet of someone who tested positive for COVID-19 should be tested. According to Chapman, DHMC has tested nearly 500 people for SAU 70 contact tracing but there have been zero cases of in-school transmission, and only one short-term closure (of the middle school) for contact tracing.

“The data are showing that schools are one of the safest places to be, and that mitigation measures work,” Chapman explains. “Child development cannot be put on hold. It’s not just the learning and the test scores that improve in school—it’s also socialization and the joy of discovery.”

Time for in-person learning

Chapman and others on the task force recommends a return to in-person learning for all school districts as soon as possible. Samantha House, MD, section chief of Pediatric Hospital Medicine at CHaD, and another task force member, advocates for broad community involvement in this effort.  

“Success really takes community engagement. In any school district there will be people with experience to leverage—whether medical, operational planning or other, so it’s important to ask for volunteers,” House says. “Whenever possible, have district leadership develop a consistent plan that can be adjusted by schools, rather than individual schools having separate plans.” She also recommends outreach to stakeholder groups at risk for inequities, as various socioeconomic and racial groups are likely to have unique perspectives about COVID-19 impacts based on their own experiences during the pandemic.

The task force continues to meet weekly to navigate issues like potential spring theater events, graduations and whether teachers can travel after being fully vaccinated. It’s also considering replacing the requirement for immediate contact tracing testing with a rapid COVID-19 test seven days after exposure. The group will update its plan and directives as needed, and will meet until the pandemic is over.