Divided School Committee votes to make masks mandatory at HHS due to surge in COVID-19 cases

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The School Committee on Thursday voted 3-2 to re-institute the mandatory mask policy at Hopkinton High School beginning today after a nearly hour-long discussion.

“Everyone, I’m sure, has been hearing about the school outbreak,” said Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh. “What we need to remember is that these cases are appearing to derive from a fast-moving and highly contagious Delta variant.”

As of Thursday, there were 15 positive cases at the high school.

Said Cavanaugh: “It is very likely that that number is going to go up significantly [Friday].”

Since Dec. 1, there have been more than 132 coronavirus cases in Hopkinton. Part of this could be because people have become more relaxed in their behaviors.

She explained that the incubation period for this Delta variant appears to be shorter than other variations of the COVID-19 virus. She also noted that 98 percent of the students who tested positive have been fully vaccinated.

While there are 19 cases of Omicron in the state, none has been in Hopkinton.

“I’m concerned that parents think there is COVID spreading all over our classrooms,” the superintendent continued. “And that would not be accurate.”

Most of the current cases have been tied to athletic, weekend and out-of-school activities. There can be “far-reaching consequences” because those exposed could have siblings in younger grades.

The superintendent stressed that students should stay home if they are not well. She noted that students who have tested positive have attended school, while some with positive PCR test have participated in after-school activities.

“Those things are really not OK,” she stressed.

At Elmwood School, a person who tested positive “had 39 close contacts,” Cavanaugh noted.

The students will be missing out on special services they need as well as pre-vacation activities.

Member Amanda Fargiano asked if any athletic team activities had been suspended. The superintendent confirmed that the girls basketball program canceled practices and games this week.

One of the things that superintendents have advocated for at a meeting with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was that the Test and Stay program should now be available to people who have been exposed to the coronavirus outside of school. Currently, students are only eligible for Test and Stay if they are exposed in class.

The superintendent explained that those students have not experienced serious cases. But there are more cases at the high school than at all the other schools combined.

Member Joe Markey noted that there has been very little rate of serious illness to those who have been exposed.

“At what point will public health officials come around and advise us that, ‘Hey, we’re living with this and you’re a fully vaccinated community and people aren’t getting seriously ill?’ ” he questioned. “I still feel like we’re living under the rules of the pre-vaccine, where we counted infections and case counts, and we’re not talking as much about the fact that amongst the vaccinated population, there’s very minimal disruptive impact to their health.”

The superintendent said that Health Director Shaun McAuliffe “wants off-ramping shut down.”

Both she and McAuliffe recommended that the mandatory mask policy at the high school be reinstated on today. This also would help to prevent children from going into their vacation with an illness.

Committee Chair Nancy Cavanaugh said that what is different now is that there no longer is the ability to set up field hospitals because of staffing shortages. She stressed that students who are placed in quarantine are having their education disrupted.

“If one of those [positive-tested] kids exposed 39 and another exposed 30, how many of those kids are going to be out of school?” she said. “We don’t exist in a vacuum.”

Markey said the previous policy vote gives the superintendent authority to rescind the mask policy. He said he felt uncomfortable voting on this because the School Committee does not have health expertise.

He also criticized the administrators of state public health agencies for putting school committees “in the business of making health policies” and abdicating from their responsibility.

Markey said he wanted to “push the ball back to the state” to let DESE reverse the mask-optional policy.

Member Lya Batlle-Rafferty said she was concerned about this “very virulent” strain spreading even amongst the vaccinated.

Member Meg Tyler said she preferred that the superintendent make the call, in keeping with the policy implemented at the meeting on Dec 2.

Nancy Cavanaugh said she was comfortable voting on it and it would show support for the superintendent and McAuliffe. She said she didn’t think that students wearing a mask for another five class days before the holiday break was less of a concern than students being exposed and having to close classrooms because of a surge.

Added Batlle-Rafferty: “I also think that it’s unfair to offload onto our superintendent a decision that we find hard to make. She’s not a health official either; she’s our employee.”

The chair said the authority of the superintendent to make the decision could be reexamined in January.

Tyler questioned why the committee authorized the superintendent to make the decision in the first place.

“Fear is a very seductive thing,” she said. “And the more we talk about it, the more we spread it, too.”

Markey stressed that the committee “stands united” despite the differing members’ opinions. The discussions have all been respectful.

Fargiano moved to reinstitute the mask mandate beginning today and then vote on the matter at the next meeting on Jan. 6. The motion was seconded by Batlle-Rafferty. Tyler and Markey opposed the motion.

The superintendent also asked the committee to vote to endorse the policy that people traveling comply with the testing requirements.

At the end of the meeting, Markey again brought up the issue that the superintendent was given the authority to rescind the mask policy. He felt that the committee’s vote was inconsistent with that policy.

The chair said Markey could make a motion to reopen that item.

“One other thing to come out of this is that, if we’re going to make as serious a motion as this is — and we are going to have to make one in the future probably in January at some point — that we should very carefully consider what we’re putting down in the motion,” Markey said.

Tyler made the motion to reopen, and Markey seconded.

Nancy Cavanaugh said the intent of the original motion was to give the superintendent authority to not to have to call an emergency meeting of the committee. The meeting was already scheduled for this week, so she said it was still within the committee’s authority to discuss it.

“I think there’s a difference between not necessary and no authority,” Fargiano added.

Markey questioned Nancy Cavanaugh about “overturning the decision we already made” on the previous policy, a vote on which she had abstained. He thought the policy at this time only would make sense if “the minority didn’t get what it wanted.”

“The reality is I never had the authority to make all five of us vote one way or not,” the chair countered. “I brought it back so that the five of us …”

Markey interrupted: “But we didn’t have to vote on it.”

Said Nancy Cavanaugh: “But three of us did, so it’s a majority tonight.”

Markey said he was concerned that it would set a precedent of undoing the policy set on Dec. 2.

After debate, a vote to reopen the motion was opposed 3-2 by Nancy Cavanaugh, Fargiano and Batlle-Rafferty.

“Let’s just be more careful in the future,” Markey suggested.

Batlle-Rafferty recommended that everyone review the Dec. 2 tape.