SOMERSWORTH — Area school leaders called for new state and federal funding dedicated to COVID-19 testing in schools, among other reopening assistance, during a session with U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas Wednesday afternoon.
Without widespread testing and more rapid test results, the officials said they expect it will be difficult to manage the spread of the coronavirus before it starts working through local schools. They also said they expect the lack of such testing to exacerbate the fact that the coronavirus is disproportionately impacting families and districts with fewer resources as well as families of color, based on national data and trends.
“They keep saying, ‘Oh, if you have symptoms, go get tested,’ which is kind of a little too late… Then they’ll say, ‘The good news is kids tend to really not get it, but if they do get it they’re asymptomatic,’” said Matt Hanlon, chair of the Somersworth School Board. “Good news for who? That’s not good news for any of our staff or our parents because that means we’re cramming them all together, nobody knows they have it, they’re not getting tested, they don’t have any symptoms and they’re giving it to our staff and their parents. We haven’t seen what will happen with that yet.”
Pappas met with area school leaders at Somersworth High School on Wednesday, the day Somersworth resumed instruction for the first time since emergency shutdown orders were issued in March.
Pappas said the session was structured as a way for him to touch base with stakeholders and constituents as he continues to advocate for additional federal relief for New Hampshire’s school districts.
Attendees included various elected officials and school administrators representing Somersworth and Dover, state Sen. David Watters (D-Dover), Somersworth Mayor Dana Hilliard, the head of the New Hampshire chapter of the National Education Association, and Somersworth City Manager Bob Belmore.
Like with the testing comments, most of the officials’ concerns centered around their beliefs that local school districts lack the necessary resources or supports to execute decisions the state and federal governments have left up to them.
“It really is an opportunity for our schools to rise to the occasion, but there is a need for resources,” said Watters, who represents Barrington, Dover, Rollinsford, and Somersworth in New Hampshire Senate District 4.
Such concerns included things like limited funding to purchase supplies like personal protective equipment while also grappling with a myriad of other expenses related to COVID-19.
“Rollinsford… only got $200,000 (for school assistance through the federal CARES Act). Like, dear God,” said Hanlon. “For them to only get $200,000, that’s got to hurt them immensely not knowing what they’re going to need to do, what that’s going to do to their small budget.”
After this story was published, Rollinsford school officials notified Foster’s Daily Democrat their district was actually only allocated $13,352.58 in CARES Act funding, not $200,000 as stated by Hanlon.
The attendees concerns’ about limited assistance Wednesday also included districts’ inability to afford necessary infrastructure improvements that many districts have sidelined for decades due to funding limitations in normal years.
“Certainly COVID-19 has brought the challenges of school funding and school budgeting to the forefront, but this is nothing new,” said Dr. Bob Gadomski, superintendent of the Somersworth School District. “We’re supporting our budgets on the back of our local taxpayers, which is continually a challenge. We’re getting, in round numbers, less than $4,000 a student and our (district cost) per pupil is, on average, somewhere between $15,000 and $18,000. So it’s a challenge every single year to try to make headway in some of the things that are now coming to light.”
Other concerns included worry there are inadequate funding and supports to help students and families who may struggle no matter the reopening model their district has chosen. (Dover and Somersworth are starting with largely remote models with special exceptions, while Rochester — whose school staff were represented by NEA-NH President Megan Tuttle Wednesday — is among the area districts that have chosen a model that features mostly in-person instruction.)
Pappas and several attendees expressed concern for families who have limited access to broadband internet for their online coursework.
Others expressed concerns for students who may be impacted by changes to services on which they have relied, like counseling, in-school social-emotional learning and key programs.
“Those programs are just as vital as the school day,” said Somersworth City Councilor Matt Gerding, referring to the meal and enrichment programs Somersworth provides to hundreds of students before and after school every day. “We need more money for these things… There are a lot of pressures on families these days.”
Pappas agreed with the concerns raised, stating he believes the state and federal governments aren’t doing enough to help school districts test nor help protect districts from falling even more behind in areas they struggled prior to the pandemic.
He said public schools are now possibly more important ever and that now is “not a time to back down from our commitments.”
“I want you to know that we’re going to do everything we can at the federal level to bring resources back here and identify a number of ways those resources could be put to good use,” said Pappas. “Local property taxpayers don’t have the money to fund this, certainly not if we’re in this boat for another year or so. This is where the federal government has to step up and act… If my colleagues are listening to their constituents as I am here today, it should be a pretty easy call.”
[Editor’s note: This story was updated after it was published to highlight a dollar figure cited in a quote is inaccurate.]