Widespread COVID forces some Upper Valley schools to close

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-10-2022 9:42 PM

Multiple Upper Valley schools will be closed this week, some of them for multiple days, because of rising numbers of COVID-19 cases among staff and students.

Schools in the Orange East Supervisory Union including Thetford Elementary, Bradford Elementary, Newbury Elementary, Oxbow High School and River Bend Career and Tech Center, will be closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

“As the end of the day approached today, more and more staff and students went home with cold-like symptoms,” Superintendent Emilie B. Knisley wrote in a letter to staff and families.

Staff were particularly hard hit, with 103 staff members across seven schools absent, Knisely wrote, while on an average day, 30 staff members are absent. District officials expected the absence rates to be similar Tuesday and Wednesday due to quarantine periods and the wait time for PCR test results.

“As a result, we can’t safely operate our schools with more than 30% of our staff unavailable for the work day,” Knisely wrote. “Likewise, we are not able to offer remote learning with that number of staff absent. Furthermore, extreme cold temperatures forecasted over the next two days limit our ability to allow students outside recess or mask breaks, which is an important mitigation strategy.”

The district is following advice from Vermont Education Secretary Daniel French, who has recommended that schools that don’t have enough staff to “safely operate” should close, Knisely said. She added that the district will be applying for waivers from the state so that it does not have to make up the days in June.

“Please note that in no way is this meant to point fingers at our hard working and dedicated staff who have shown up day after day throughout this pandemic,” she said in her letter. “We simply have too many staff members out caring for quarantining or ill family members, quarantining themselves, or who are symptomatic or caring for someone with COVID-19.”

A staff shortage also is shuttering the Grantham Village School Tuesday.

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“It’s mainly due to staffing issues, which is either staff or staff family cases where they need to be out, where staff is caring for family members who are positive,” SAU 75 Superintendent Sydney Leggett said in a phone interview.

It is the first time that the school has had to be closed due to COVID cases and school officials are working to make sure it reopens Wednesday. Bus service will continue for middle and high school students, who attend Lebanon schools. The district is still trying to figure out how to assist elementary school students who receive free or reduced lunch. Since students have returned from the holiday break, there have been a dozen cases.

“Every day our principal does an amazing juggling act to keep us open, but we reached a breaking point of how many people are going to be out due to new cases,” Leggett said. “We’re hoping that this is just an isolated day and then we can get back on track.”

Grantham is a smaller district, which means “smaller numbers of people make bigger issues” than it would be for a larger district.

“We don’t have a big district to draw people from other schools and we don’t have a big sub pool right now either,” Leggett said.

While the district has about a dozen substitute teachers, there are only three or four who are regularly able to accept jobs. The pay rate for subs has been raised to $100 per day and school officials have been trying to recruit college students who are home on break.

“There’s so many factors with everything happening outside of school, with the delta and omicron variants hitting New Hampshire pretty hard right now,” Leggett said. “It’s just a lot.”

White River Valley Middle School in Bethel will be closed Tuesday “due to significant COVID-19 positivity and a severe number of close contacts,” Jamie Kinnarney, superintendent of the White River Valley Supervisory Union, wrote in a letter to members of the school community. No other schools in the White River Valley Unified District will be closed.

Since Saturday, a contact tracing team has been working to identify and notify anyone with a possible exposure, Kinnarney wrote. Unvaccinated students have been sent home with COVID antigen test kits, which they’ve been instructed to take Tuesday or Wednesday. Students who are vaccinated have also been given tests as well and are encouraged to use them.

“There will be no ability to provide remote learning due to AOE (Agency of Education) policy changes regarding what constitutes a student day,” Kinnarney wrote in the letter. “The AOE has made it abundantly clear that we can’t leverage remote learning as a school day. Only in person learning now constitutes a school day per AOE policy/procedure.”

Haverhill school district updates mask policies

HAVERHILL — The Haverhill Cooperative School District will require students to wear masks for seven days if there are COVID-19 outbreaks at its three schools.

In a Sunday update to parents, district officials defined an outbreak as “two or more unrelated clusters in the school with symptom onset within 14 days of each other.” A cluster is defined as three or more students who share a classroom or are on the same sports team.

Parents would have the option to keep their children home during an outbreak and be able to access assignments on Google Classroom.

District officials are continuing to “strongly recommend” that all students wear masks. Parents of Woodsville Elementary School students can sign an opt-out form so that school officials know about their wishes.

“We believe this will increase the percentage of students wearing masks and reduce the spread of covid and other respiratory viruses,” according to the announcement. “Parents are encouraged to check in with their child’s teacher periodically to ensure parent wishes are being followed.”

Claremont testing site closes Tuesday

CLAREMONT — An outdoor COVID-19 testing site at River Valley Community College in Claremont will be closed Tuesday due to the “extreme cold,” according to an announcement from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, which operates the site.

Temperatures are expected to hit the single digits, but feel much colder. The department expects all outdoor sites will reopen at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Residents who need a test can visit covid19.nh.gov to find an indoor testing site.

Haverhill senior center closes for one day

NORTH HAVERHILL — The Horse Meadow Senior Center was closed for cleaning Monday after a member of the center’s community tested positive for COVID-19.

The center was “professionally cleaned and disinfected” Monday, according to Kathleen Vasconcelos, executive director of the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council, which oversees eight senior centers in Grafton County. It is set to reopen Tuesday with reduced staff, as those who were in contact with the person who tested positive are quarantining.

“The safety of our participants, volunteers, and employees continues to be our top priority,” Vasconcelos wrote in an email.

Royalton, Strafford senior centers pause in-person meals

SOUTH ROYALTON — The Royalton and Strafford senior centers are pausing congregate meals due to a rise in COVID-19 cases.

The meals will be canceled “until further notice” according to an announcement from the two nonprofit organizations. Meals on Wheels deliveries will continue and grab-and-go meals will be offered at both sites.

Call 802-763-7386 (South Royalton) or 802-765-4121 (Strafford) before 9:30 a.m. to request a grab-and-go meal.

Upcoming vaccine clinics

New Hampshire’s mobile vaccine clinic will operate from 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday at Sunapee’s Abbott Library, at 11 Soonipi Circle. Pfizer, Moderna and J&J shots will be available for adults and children ages 5 to 17. All three booster shots for adults and children ages 16 and up. Call the library at 603-763-5513 to register. Vaccines are free and available to residents of any town.

The mobile clinic also will be stopping by the CCBA Recreational Center at 1 Taylor St. in Lebanon from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

A walk-in clinic is planned for 2 to 6 p.m. Thursday at West Lebanon’s Kilton Public Library, located at 80 Main St. All three shots will be available to New Hampshire and Vermont residents ages 5 and up. Boosters will also be available to those who qualify. The clinic is being sponsored by Pathways, the Special Needs Support Center, the Lebanon Public Libraries and the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. For more information, email bhendrick@pathwaysnh.org and dbogle@pathwaysnh.org or call 603-504-8363 or 603-690-5901 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Dartmouth case numbers

HANOVER — As of Monday evening, there were 434 active cases of COVID-19 at Dartmouth College.

That included 292 undergraduate students, 74 graduate students and 68 employees, according to Dartmouth’s online information dashboard. There have been 566 positive cases in the last seven days.

There are 250 students isolating on campus as well as 196 students and employees isolating off campus.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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