Thanks to strategies followed by many school districts in New Hampshire and Vermont last year, in-person learning was successful despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Based on lessons learned, the relatively high vaccination rates in the twin states and the low risk of severe COVID-19 cases in children across age groups, all school districts will return to in-person instruction for the upcoming 2021-22 school year, and the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock (CHaD) fully supports this data-driven decision.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have published national guidance for a safe return to school, which informed local prevention strategies created by the New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services (NH DPHS) and the Vermont Agency of Education and Department of Health (VDH). This guidance can change based on local spread of COVID-19 and are not universal for every community—–providing flexibility for individual communities rather than a blanket approach to either state or region.
Mask requirements in New Hampshire schools
The NH DPHS recommends all students wear masks indoors when the level of community transmission is substantial. This means that new cases per 100,000 people over the past 14 days is high, and there is a high percentage of COVID-19 tests showing positive results in that community. Currently, every county in New Hampshire is at a substantial level. However, indoor mask requirements can change in the coming weeks and months as levels return to moderate or minimal. The NH DPHS published a decision matrix to explain this community-informed guidance, along with a real-time dashboard of local COVID-19 spread.
“I appreciate the data-driven approach to making decisions based on local levels of community transmission in New Hampshire,” says Erik M. Shessler, MD, an associate medical director for CHaD and chapter president of the New Hampshire Pediatric Society. “I’m comfortable sending my kids to school; my oldest is vaccinated and I look forward to getting my youngest vaccinated as soon as it is available.”
Masks requirements in Vermont schools
In Vermont, mask guidance is vaccine- and school-based. The VDH is requiring indoor masking for the first 10 days of school for children 12 and older. Once each school reaches an 80 percent vaccination rate of children eligible for the vaccine, masks will not be required (children under 12 must wear masks until they are vaccine-eligible).
Other suggested guidelines
Families and schools are urged by CHaD, NH DPHS and VDH to follow these guidelines:
- Vaccinate children once they’re eligible.
- Don’t send children to school sick. They should only return after 24 hours without fever reducing medications.
- Practice good hand hygiene.
- Enhanced cleaning measures in schools are unnecessary (COVID-19 rarely spreads through surfaces).
- Aim for three feet of physical distance indoors if possible (the standard distance in schools based on AAP, CDC and NH/VT data).
- Cohorting students–keeping small groups of students and teachers together–helps with contact tracing (Vermont will continue contact tracing, New Hampshire will not).
- Testing helps with screening and surveillance.
“With data, kindness and community, we can do this—we already have,” encourages CHaD Pediatrician Steven Chapman, MD, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, who volunteered as SAU 70 physician last year and is a member of the school district’s Task Force to keep kids healthy and in school. “Getting children back to in-person school is of paramount importance to their wellbeing, health and development. If we keep this goal in mind and work together, I know we can meet this challenge.”