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Winnacunnet to start year remotely under "Enriched Virtual Learning" plan

Students to be allowed in building for beginning-of-year orientation and for small group work - fall sports to continue under social distancing guidelines

Many Winnacunnet students may have been looking forward to stepping into the school again this September, but according to new reopening plans approved last week, that won’t be a reality for most students. On Friday, August 7, the Winnacunnet School Board approved a reopening plan that puts Winnacunnet under “Enriched Virtual Learning” to start off the 2020-2021 school year.

The plan approved by the board was brought forth by the SAU 21 reopening task force, led by SAU 21 Superintendent Dr. Bill Lupini. Lupini said that although the decision was extremely difficult to make, remote learning in September will look very different than it did in the spring.

“It [Enriched Virtual Learning] has some sort of orientation programming at the beginning, where we can bring in small groups to meet with teachers in at least some, if not all classes,” Lupini said. “It has a daily schedule of live interactions between teachers and students, and it has opportunities for small groups to come in, whether it’s for enrichment, remediation, a project, or a science experiment, whatever it may be.”

In addition, it was recently announced that fall sports will continue, with restrictions, during Enriched Virtual Learning. According to SeacoastOnline, Lupini approved initial plans for all fall sports to go ahead, with more details to be released.

According to Lupini, the planning for return-to-school started in May, even before the Class of 2020’s graduation. The task force was divided into working groups consisting of parents, teachers, administrators, and even health professionals. Lupini has committed to reviewing the return-to-school status every two weeks, to see if there are more opportunities for students to be in the building.

“I sit in weekly with our nurses, I sit in weekly with [N.H. State Epidemiologist] Dr. Chan and the calls he’s done for superintendents through DHHS, and I find the waffling nature of the advice that we get to be problematic,” Lupini said. “We want to create a metric that is there, that anybody can look at and understand, that is communicated clearly… but we’re not there in terms of creating that yet.”

Upon hearing the news of the reopening plans, students around Winnacunnet had mixed reactions. Some, like senior Hannah Thompson, were not happy with the plans and called for changes to be made.

“As a senior, I’m disappointed that we aren’t going back just because there was so much I was looking forward to, but also from a learning standpoint, it is scary to me that I won’t learn what I need to get through the year,” Thompson said. “I do respect those who are looking out for their loved ones but what I don’t agree on is the teachers who just don’t want to come and teach because they’d rather stay home because that’s the easiest, that’s the part I’m most upset about.”

However, Lupini clarified that under a federal law passed in the spring, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) employees, teachers included, who ask for accommodations from their employer are entitled to those accommodations.

“I’ve heard a lot of things said over the last few days that trouble me, about teachers, but here’s the fact,” Lupini said. “If I’m a person in a work situation, and I have reason to believe something about my own health, or something about the health of someone who lives in my home, leads me to request an accommodation, which I am entitled to under federal law, then I have an obligation to do that, under the COVID bill that was adopted in the spring.”

Other Winnacunnet students said that starting the year remotely was the right decision to make for the health of the community. Junior Melia O’Hara said that she believed it would be difficult to keep the entire student body and faculty COVID-free should we return to the building.

“We need to think about our staff at Winnacunnet and their safety, we should always keep them in mind and value them greater since they are the ones at a bigger risk to the virus,” O’Hara said. “I wish the administration had made a decision earlier on, as students and staff I’m sure were very stressed over whether or not we were going back.”

When the decision was announced, Lupini was the target of backlash on social media, with comments that said the reopening plan was the “worst idea ever” and “a joke”. Lupini said that he thinks people have lost sight of “the real villain here,” the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What I have said is that our job is to try to make sure we get back to school in some period of time safely, and that we’re constantly working toward that,” Lupini said. “I think name calling is unfortunate and I think words that don’t have any meaning in an exchange of ideas like ‘joke’ are not helpful. This is my 26th year as a superintendent, and I didn’t go in thinking it was a popularity contest, and it’s not.”

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