August 24, 2021
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the ConVal School District has made operational changes and adopted policies to respond to this virus based on the best available science and advice of medical experts. It is important for us all to recognize that science is a developing process and that this was a new “novel” virus with which our public health system had no previous knowledge of methods of transmission, lethality, long-term effects, etc. As more and more data becomes available, consensus on best practices has and will continue to change. That is, after all, the nature of science. As frustrating as that is for all of us, following the best available science will be our collective pathway through this pandemic. As a result of the collaborative efforts of the Board, community, administration, teachers, staff, and students there have been no confirmed cases of transmission within our schools. We are thankful for that cooperation. With the emergence and spread of the Delta variant, the Board wants to make sure our community is familiar with the reasoning that went into the decisions that resulted in the ConVal Reopening Plan. The District is legally responsible for the safety and health of our students and our Reopening and Recovery Plan for the 2021-2022 school year reflects that responsibility.
A Focus on In-Person Learning
Although the Board is proud of our District’s leadership and response to the pandemic, in deploying 100% remote learning, hybrid learning models, and adaptive in-person instruction from March 2020 throughout the 2020-2021 school year, it is clear that a return to fully in-person learning must be our primary focus for the 2021-2022 school year. In order to ensure that we can continue to provide in-person instruction for the entire school year, it is important that we implement layered mitigation strategies to reduce exposure to and transmission of COVID-19 in our schools and our community.
Delta is Different
The Delta variant circulating is much more transmissible than previous variants. Data shows that Delta is 40 to 60% more contagious than the original strain. Data out of the United Kingdom shows that adults under 50 and children are 2.5 times more likely to be infected with Delta. Data out of Scotland shows that the risk of hospitalization for unvaccinated adults is twice as high under Delta. Cases in NH and hospitalizations are significantly higher now than they were at this time last year. The viral load under Delta is significantly higher. The greatest risk of transmission is among unvaccinated people. In 5 of the 9 ConVal towns, the vaccination rate of those 15 years of age and over is lower than 60%. One town is lower than 50%. Although the vast majority of our staff are vaccinated, none of our elementary students have that option and only half of our middle school students have access to the vaccine. Statewide, less than 40% of those 12-19 years old are fully vaccinated. The more action taken now to limit the spread of COVID-19 will reduce the likelihood of additional variants that may be more transmissible or that current vaccines may be less effective against.
The use and effectiveness of masks have been a polarizing issue since the original emergence of COVID-19. However, the consensus of the medical and scientific community is clear, absent a widespread vaccination rate at or above 80 percent, the use of masks is our next best mitigation strategy to prevent the spread of COVID-19, hospitalization, and deaths. With the emergence of the Delta variant, the use of masks is even more important now than it was last school year. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, recommends universal indoor masking for all K-12 students, teachers, and staff. The American Academy of Pediatrics endorses this recommendation. In January 2021, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published “An evidence review of face masks against COVID-19.” This is a comprehensive review of the evidence available on masking. The conclusion reached was clear, “nonmedical masks have been effective in reducing transmission of respiratory viruses; and places and time periods where mask usage is required or widespread have shown substantially lower community transmission.” As of the publication of this statement, children under 12 are not eligible for any of the COVID-19 vaccines. Therefore, half of our middle schools and all of our elementary schools have one less layer of mitigation available to them.
The use of masks helps add an additional layer of protection for those who cannot be vaccinated such as our students younger than 12 and those with compromised immune systems (cancer survivors, transplant recipients, type 1 diabetics, type 2 diabetics, asthmatics) for whom the vaccines are less effective, and are therefore more susceptible to hospitalization or death from COVID-19. All of these individuals are represented in our students and staff. The use of masks also reduces the viral load that an individual is exposed to, which also has a great impact on the symptoms experienced with COVID and the impact on our local healthcare system in treating those symptoms.
Arguments have also been presented that the requirement to wear a mask infringes on personal freedom. As a society, we have rules regarding which side of the road to drive on. There are speed limits. There are penalties for driving while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. These are reasonable policies required for society and the protection of others in our communities that cannot be vaccinated or for whom the vaccines may be less effective. Article 3 of the New Hampshire Constitution endorses this approach to civil society entirely: “When men enter into a state of society, they surrender up some of their natural rights to that society, in order to ensure the protection of others; and, without such an equivalent, the surrender is void.” This aligns with one of the components of the ConVal Mission Statement to, “give of oneself to the greater community.”
Community Transmission Rate
This summer, due to the low transmission rate of the virus in our area, we were able to relax our masking guidelines, and all anticipated returning to school with a more normalized learning environment. We expected that we would be able to open the schools in the “blue phase.” Unfortunately, we are now facing a surge that is aimed at a much younger unvaccinated population due to the characteristics of the Delta variant. The community transmission rate in the Greater Monadnock Public Health Region is now above 200 per 100,000 (08/23/2021) and the positivity rate is 4.7%. Some residents point out that there are very few confirmed cases in the immediate ConVal communities. Due to the suppressed nature of the data in the ConVal towns, we can only estimate the transmission rate per 100,000. That rate could be anywhere from as low as 71 to as high as 163. As we are all aware, ConVal does not exist in a bubble. Many of our staff members live outside our District and many of the parents of our students travel outside of our communities for employment. In addition, the ConVal region is a tourist destination – especially during the summer and fall months. Data emerging out of Florida and other Southern states is showing thousands of pediatric cases resulting in school districts having to quarantine thousands of children. In Mississippi, 20,000 students have been placed in quarantine after only one week of school. According to the latest CDC data, the groups with the largest increases in coronavirus hospitalizations are patients in their 30s and those younger than 18. This latter group represents our students.
Thanks to massive vaccination efforts, smallpox was eradicated worldwide by 1980. Polio has been eradicated in the United States since 1979. In 2000, measles was declared eliminated in the United States. Unfortunately, due to anti-vaccination campaigns based on since-debunked and fraudulent publications, measles is once again occurring in low-vaccinated populations in the United States. Vaccines are overwhelmingly safe. The same is true for the vaccinations that target COVID-19. Overall, more than 200 million Americans are at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19. Globally, 4.5 billion doses have been administered. The three vaccines available in the United States have undergone and continue to undergo intense, unprecedented scrutiny. The Pfizer vaccine recently received full approval by the FDA. Although there have been very rare instances of short-term side-effects of the vaccines, the risk versus benefit analysis is overwhelmingly in favor of near-universal vaccination of those 12 years of age and older. Unfortunately, no vaccine is yet available for our students under 12. That means that other mitigation measures, including the use of masks, remain paramount to reduce exposure to, infection of, and transmission of COVID-19. The Board has already indicated that a high enough vaccination rate (80%) in any individual building will likely lead to a relaxing of masking policies in line with recommendations from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. Our high school is approaching the 80% vaccination rate, and the District is working to develop a process to verify the status of staff and students. The vaccination rate of those 15 years of age and older in the communities of ConVal is an estimated 62%. The individual towns range from a low of 48% to a high of 77%. Statewide, the vaccination rate of those 12-19 years of age is less than 40%.