From the pandemic to our economy to schools to local government, 2021 has been a challenging year. With the release of the COVID 19 vaccines at the end of 2020, many were hopeful that the worst days of the pandemic would soon be behind us, but that's not been the case. The virus continued to dominate our lives and local headlines.
Sarah Gibson (Education and Demographics reporter from New Hampshire Public Radio), Nora Doyle-Burr (Health reporter from the Valley News), and Matt Mowry (Editor of Business New Hampshire Magazine) join The State We’re In host Melanie Plenda to review some of the year’s biggest stories.
Watch the full interview on NH PBS's The State We're In.
The year in review Q&A (This content has been edited for length and clarity.
Melanie Plenda: Let's start with the ongoing major story of the year, the Coronavirus pandemic. Nora, can you walk us through some of the highlights of covering the pandemic this year?
Nora Doyle-Burr: Last year at this time we were covering healthcare workers as they got some of the first shots of the COVID 19 vaccines. The first part of the year was really about the vaccine rollout through different age groups and some different professions at the beginning. Then as we had headed into the summer, case numbers were pretty low, but then this fall obviously case counts have risen quickly and are at their highest point.
Initially we were trying to understand the differences between the three vaccines that are currently approved for people in the U.S. Then it was following who would accept a vaccine and who wouldn't and why, and some of those issues. There was also some controversy around other mitigation strategies, such as masks and schools and some other places. I think what we're watching for in the future has to do with this new variant and what it means for the transmissibility of the virus, and how seriously ill people might get, and, and whether or not the vaccines are effective.
Melanie Plenda: The pandemic has affected every aspect of our society and our schools. Sarah, can you talk about some of your coverage this year and the pandemic's influence on education in New Hampshire?
Sarah Gibson: About a year ago, we still had a lot of the biggest school districts in New Hampshire either hybrid or fully remote, and it wasn't until teachers were getting vaccinated that you saw districts offer an in-person learning option for students five days a week. Some of the big districts had stayed largely remote or hybrid for much of last year because of high COVID rates. Because of concerns among staff, as well as families, you didn't see everyone return even when school was fully open. In Manchester and Nashua, a lot of families opted to stay remote, which means this fall was the first time that a lot of students were actually returning to their classroom in a year and a half.
All of those transitions we saw this fall and some of them were rocky. I've heard a lot of stories of students who are resilient, but they definitely experienced learning loss and also just loss in socialization and in some behavioral stuff. There's definitely been teachers I've talked to who say they’re having to remind kids about rules and how to interact with one another, particularly younger kids who just weren't in school and with other kids for a good year and a half before this fall. Then of course there's been the question of COVID mitigation strategies. What risk is worth it to get every kid in the classroom, to get kids playing sports again, interacting with one another, returning to some kind of normal with a variant raging and the highest rates of COVID among kids that we've ever seen.
There was certainly a push in the spring for teachers to get vaccinated. Over the course of the summer and in the fall, schools have actually hosted vaccination clinics in order to ensure that students with parental permission have access to the COVID vaccine. But we still see pretty low rates, particularly among younger kids for vaccination in some of these districts. There's also been questions about masks - and we can go into that, but basically the question of whether or not kids should have to wear masks throughout the day has been really contested in a lot of the districts. In addition to trying to cope with learning loss, schools have been struggling with different kinds of relationship to risk and even belief in COVID as a serious virus that they encounter in their communities. There's a real spectrum, and schools have had to contend with everyone on that spectrum in order to provide education to students.
Melanie Plenda: Turning to the economy, we've all seen the pandemic's influence on the economy. A tight labor market and supply chain problems are just a few of the issues we've seen nationally. How is this playing out in New Hampshire, Matt?
Matt Mowry: This was the year of the great resignation, and we in New Hampshire went into this pandemic already in a tight labor market with an all-time low for unemployment rates. While unemployment rates did climb, they settled back down. We went back into having a tight labor market again and we saw the quit rates hit all time high -, people hit the reset button on their lives and reassessed what they wanted to do for a job or what they wanted out of a company culture. Companies are not only struggling to fill new positions because they’re growing and needing new additions to their workforce, but they're struggling to hang on to the employees they have now. We're seeing as a result wages are starting to climb, and benefits being rethought. We're certainly seeing more flexibility being built into the workplace.
Melanie Plenda: How has the affordable housing crunch played into that? What can you tell us about that?
Matt Mowry: As we went into the recession, we already had an issue with a lack of affordable housing, and the pandemic has certainly put the squeeze on that. We have seen people as they hit the reset button, reassessing where and how they want to live. We also saw a lot of folks coming into the state and spending a lot of money, driving up our housing prices. $400,000 was our average home price here in New Hampshire during the summer. We're starting to see that settle back down, but the fact is that our affordable housing shortage is even worse than it was before the pandemic.
Melanie Plenda: Another major issue in New Hampshire this year stemmed from what's known as the Divisive Concepts language included in the state budget. Sarah, how has that played out so far in New Hampshire classrooms this year?
Sarah Gibson: As a reminder, this statute was passed as part of the state budget. It's really modeled after language that we've seen in a lot of Republican controlled state houses across the country. Those were inspired by an executive order from former president Trump. The language that was ultimately passed in New Hampshire basically says that no teacher can teach that a certain group is inherently oppressive or superior, and it also says that basically students should treat everyone without regard to their difference. It raised a lot of questions for teachers about whether or not they could have conversations about historical incidences of racism and sexism and discrimination that relate to contemporary politics and questions.
The Attorney General's office actually weighed in and said, ‘Here's some examples of things you can teach.’ That includes discussing Black Lives Matter or having conversations that make people uncomfortable. Still teachers allege actually in a lawsuit that was just filed a couple days ago that it's had a chilling effect. Because the language is so vague, a lot of teachers are opting out of certain lesson plans, certain curriculum, certain conversations, because they're scared that there will be a complaint lodged against them. If it's found that they did in fact violate the new statute around this language, they could lose their license. That lawsuit was just filed by one of the teacher’s unions here in New Hampshire this week. We'll see how that plays out in the federal court, but their main allegation is that the chilling effect has already happened.
Even if a teacher hasn't yet lost their license, because they taught something that violated the statute, the argument is that a lot of the curriculum and lessons that some students are getting has been limited by this new statute. They say that's actually in direct contradiction to the kind of curriculum and state standards that teachers are supposed to fulfill. It certainly has been something that some teachers have said adds to the weight of their responsibility and their nervousness about just being in school and the pressures they're receiving about everything from COVID to learning law, to making sure they don't violate the statute. Supporters of the new law say that the point is to protect everyone from discrimination and exclusion, and they say it's doing its job. We'll need to wait to see how it plays out and what the nature is of the complaints lodged against teachers.
Melanie Plenda: Nora, I know much of your focus this year has been on the pandemic, but there are other concerns in healthcare, especially around mental health. What effect has the pandemic had on mental health issues in New Hampshire this year?
Nora Doyle-Burr: New Hampshire, like a lot of the country, has had a hard time addressing all the needs for mental health that have risen amid the pandemic. The mental health system was also pretty strained prior to the pandemic. We had some people waiting in emergency departments for inpatient placements before the pandemic. I think wait times, especially for children, have increased during this time. Here in the Upper Valley, the Dartmouth College saw some student deaths due to suicide during the largely remote year. The college in the wake of those deaths announced some increased support for mental health for students. Like Sarah said, students largely returned to in person classes this last fall.
Melanie Plenda: As you said before, this was an issue during the pandemic that was exacerbated and we're gonna be left with it once the pandemic hopefully wanes. Is anyone looking at what to do about this or are there ways that policy makers or even hospitals are looking at trying to tackle this and mitigate some of the effects of this?
Nora Doyle-Burr: There are a lot of solutions proposed and pieces of solutions that are being rolled out. I think one thing that people have been looking forward to are these mobile response teams to respond to people who are in mental health crisis. We have some that are taking shape here in the Upper Valley and the Lebanon and Clearmont areas, but they've been having a really hard time staffing. There's a nationwide crisis line that will be rolling out soon in the coming year, people are hopeful about that. New Hampshire's proposing to contract with the Brattleboro Retreat to send some youth in need of mental health treatment to a Vermont facility.
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