LANGDON, N.H. – Choosing to side with caution to start the year, the Fall Mountain Regional School District will require its students and staff to wear masks indoors based on county-wide infection rates, regardless of community spread in its district’s towns.
The Fall Mountain School Board adopted on Monday by a vote of 4-2 the district’s proposed reopening plan for the 2020-2021, with an amendment to review the plan within 60 days.
The plan, which can be viewed online on the district’s homepage, will require mask-wearing inside school buildings when there is a “substantial” level of community spread within Sullivan or Cheshire counties or there are five or more active cases of the novel coronavirus within the school district, which consists of 12 total schools that span across five towns.
“Substantial spread,” according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, constitutes an infection rate of 100 or more active cases per 100,000 people.
The state defines a “moderate” rate as 50-100 active cases per 100,000 people. Under Fall Mountain’s reopening plan, a moderate community spread would only trigger an indoor mask requirement where a physical distance of three feet between individuals is not possible.
Many New Hampshire school districts, including Claremont, are adopting the state’s community spread matrix to determine when mask-wearing should be optional or mandatory. However, many school boards, including Fall Mountain, have also questioned its application.
A common board inquiry, as recently demonstrated in Claremont, Fall Mountain, and Newport, is why the state recommends using county data to calculate the district’s community spread, which can differ dramatically from the district’s town.
“Is there a reason why we don’t look at the [case] numbers specifically within our district?” asked Fall Mountain School Board member Craig Vickers of Walpole. “If we follow this matrix, you could hypothetically put us, with [minimal] cases between our five towns, with Claremont and Keene that have substantial community spread.”
Districts have the option to define “community” as town-specific, according to other superintendents. Both the Claremont School Board and Newport School Board considered that option last week, though the infection rates in both towns were also at the substantial level, rendering the question moot. In fact, Claremont’s infection rate was significantly higher than the county.
Yet that data is quite different in the Fall Mountain community, whose town populations are smaller and more sparsely distributed. As of Monday, Aug. 23, only Walpole, with five active cases of the virus and town population of approximately 3,700, would be categorized as having a “substantial” community spread under the state matrix. Community spread in the other participating towns – Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, and Langdon – is either zero or minimal.
“And let’s just say there is some rogue town that happens to be in our county, where their spread spikes because they are doing nothing to mitigate it,” Vickers said. “That data could impact us simply because we share the same county but aren’t looking at our own numbers.
Superintendent Lori Landry justified the rationale to factor the infection numbers in communities like Claremont and Keene given the number of district employees who commute and general travel of residents to these communities.
“We are a mobile society,” Landry said. “We don’t just live within our [cooperating towns].”
Board member Shelly Andrus of Charlestown expressed similar concerns about relying upon the matrix. Charlestown, the largest of Fall Mountain’s participating towns, currently has only one confirmed active case of the virus in its population of approximately 5,100 residents.
Andrus ultimately decided to vote in support of the plan, citing two reasons. The first reason was the addition of a 60-day deadline to review the plan, including its mask policy.
The second reason, Andrus said, was her concern about the pre-kindergarten and early elementary students, who are still not eligible to receive the Covid-19 vaccination and depend entirely upon the protective practices made by the community as a whole.
“I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if something happened to [one of those kids],” Andrus said. “If there are no cases in school, or minimal cases, hopefully we can talk about this policy more in 60 days.”
Vickers and board member Alissa Bascom of Charlestown cast the two opposing votes in the minority. Both members said they would prefer to entrust district parents to make masking decisions for their respective children.
Board Chair Sarah Vogel did not cast a vote due to the board’s voting rules but expressed her support for the plan. Vogel, a career educator, disagreed with the belief that mask-wearing decisions should be left solely to the students or parents.
“In this case, if I have a child with some kind of an immune deficiency, you get to make a decision for your child not to wear a mask but I don’t get to make a decision so that my child is safe,” Vogel said. “We have [school] rules, and laws, from where to park to our dress codes. And we have rules for what we do inside our schools to keep people safe. [Families] expect us to keep their children safe when they are in school, so that’s what we are going to do.”
By Patrick Adrian, Eagle Times