As the start of the school year approaches and the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, officials in every state are hammering out plans to reopen safely.
A lot of questions remain in New Hampshire, but earlier this month, the state's Department of Education issued a 54-page document revealing guidance for the coming school year.
This is what we know so far about the plan in the Granite State:
Will Kids Be Back in the Classroom?
This remains to be seen. Like other states, New Hampshire is encouraging school districts to plan for scenarios in which students are learning in school, online or both.
"School districts will need plans to effectively operate using an in-person, hybrid and remote instructional models, depending on the circumstances on the ground in a particular community at any given time," the Department of Education said. "This planning should also consider that those circumstances are likely to be dynamic and the district may find itself throughout the year transitioning, to varying degrees, between the various models."
"Schools should be prepared to accommodate students and staff with underlying health risks, and have a robust response plan in place if coronavirus is detected. Nothing can ever eliminate all risk, but we must balance that risk with the need to educate New Hampshire children," New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said in a statement.
No 'One-Size-Fits-All Approach'
Gov. Chris Sununu called the guidelines a "road map for school districts across the state to reopen safely." It allows school districts to make their own decisions.
"We all share a goal in getting our kids back to school safely and believe this guidance allows schools to open, but we know each school district will have a different path forward," Sununu said of the plan. "Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, this is a guide that values local control, and helps each school district make the best decision for their students and teachers."
A day later, New Hampshire's largest teachers' union called Sununu out for the plan.
Megan Tuttle, president of the New Hampshire chapter of the National Education Association, praised the Granite State's overall results in curbing the spread of the coronavirus, but she said the same standard is not being applied to schools.
"Somehow, when it comes to school children and educators, the Governor believes the virus will act so differently that students and staff don't need to wear masks, and social distance rules apply only if practical," Tuttle said.
"We had hoped for a set of minimum safety standards for all schools to achieve before they were safe to reopen," Tuttle added. "Instead, we received 56 pages of 'shoulds' not 'shalls.' The fastest way to undo the remarkable progress New Hampshire has made against the virus is to allow these guidelines to define how we reopen our school."
Masks: 'Strongly Encouraged But Not Required'
Masks will not be required in schools statewide. Rather, facial coverings are being recommended, but the regulation of their use is among the decisions being left up to schools.
"Each district will need to make decisions regarding the use of cloth face coverings for students, educators and visitors to each facility that are specific to their community," the Department of Education's document reads. "Such determinations will be reflective of circumstances on the ground at any given time and will likely be fluid and change as those circumstances change."
The state notes that the districts' decisions are to be guided by the New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services, which, in turn, is guided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local ordinances and executive orders Sununu has issued.
Children under 2 and people with underlying breathing problems should not be required to wear facial coverings, the state said in the document. Officials also said that schools should require visitors to wear masks, as well as considering limiting non-essential visitors.
"As with students, masks for educators and staff are strongly encouraged but not required," the state said.
The language echoes Sununu's approach in early July, when President Donald Trump had planned a rally in Portsmouth. He said at the time that officials "expect" attendees to wear masks, but he did not mandate their use.
Social Distancing? Not Necessarily
Throughout 2020, health officials have repeated the mantra that people should stay 6 feet apart. But New Hampshire is telling schools that it's merely "preferred" to keep desks separated by that much space — and that even half the space should be left between desks only "where possible."
"Individual chairs/desks should be arranged so that, where possible, students are spaced at least three feet apart with a goal of attempting to get chairs/desks six feet apart — six feet apart is preferred but may not be achievable given classroom size and layout," according to the Department of Education's guidance.
The CDC has long advocated social distancing of 6 feet. But the American Academy of Pediatrics — which is pushing for students to return to classrooms — is recommending 3 feet between desks, "particularly if students are wearing face coverings and are asymptomatic."
"From our perspective as pediatricians, the downsides of having kids at home versus in school are outweighed by the small incremental gain you would get from having kids six feet apart as opposed to five, four or three," Dr. Sean O'Leary, who helped write the AAP's guidelines, told the New York Times. "When you add into that other mitigation measures like mask wearing, particularly for older kids, and frequent hand washing, you can bring the risk down."
But with New Hampshire leaving the decisions up to school districts, it is not guaranteed that students will be spaced 6 or even 3 feet apart, and they will not necessarily be required to wear masks regardless of distancing.
Beyond questions about classroom layout, a recent survey showed just 8% of teachers expected students to comply with social distancing restrictions and avoid congregating in groups.
More on coronavirus
New Hampshire's state website has this resource page for the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on schools.