School Committee addresses concerns with reopening guidance

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The state commissioner of education hopes students can return to school this fall on a full-time basis, a 180-degree change from his previous inclination to encourage a combination of remote learning and brick-and-mortar return, superintendent Carol Cavanaugh told members of the Hopkinton School Committee at their July 9 meeting.

Hopkinton will “make decisions based on the resources we have in front of us, the health and safety of our kids and what we believe are the best kinds of instruction for our students, given the parameters,” she said. “We’re going to create a plan that is just right for Hopkinton.”

Cavanaugh added, “We have lots of logistical problems” with full-on school reentry, but “that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done. It would cost money and resources.”

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education commissioner Jeffrey Riley has asked districts to prepare for three potential scenarios: a full return to school, a combination model of remote and in-person learning, and a completely remote model.

The third option allows schools to “turn on a dime,” if schools must close again and go to a completely remote model, she said. By having this plan in place, changes could be made “pretty much overnight” if necessary, Cavanaugh said.

Riley also suggested that complete plans not be set in stone until early August, to allow for the most up-to-date medical information.

This news, Cavanaugh said, likely will frustrate parents hoping to figure out their schedules for school reopening. “I know how difficult it is for parents to make plans,” she said.

One reason for the push to in-person learning is to reduce the mental health impact on students who have been isolated from personal contact with classmates and teachers, supporters of the plan have said.

The challenge, Cavanaugh said, is that children likely will face challenges with either approach. “Kids’ physical health could be compromised by being in school,” she said. “Kids’ mental health could be compromised by being out of school.”

New committee member Lya Batlle-Rafferty also questioned the mental health impact of “kids being stuck in the same room for hours and hours on end.”

Riley wants students to have lunch in their classes at a space of 6 feet apart because they will have to remove masks to eat. Three feet of separation is required the rest of the school day when students are wearing masks.

To accommodate that lunch regulation, some students may have to eat in other settings beside the classroom, such as the library or athletic center, to maintain ample space, Cavanaugh said. Lunch, she noted, could be a “huge ordeal.”

Having ample space in classrooms creates another concern, Cavanaugh said. To maintain adequate space, “you would absolutely, positively have to be buying desks,” she said.

Transportation guidelines are expected shortly from the state. Busing issues include maintaining adequate separation between students. Additional bus routes may be needed, with possible staggered start and end school times.

Committee member Meg Tyler encouraged students to spend time in some of the town’s “beautiful outside spaces” to release them from a full day spent in one room.

“I don’t dislike the idea” of this “change of venue,” Cavanaugh said, noting that children would have the chance to enjoy fresh air.

”It really would be very tricky to have our kids in the same room with the same four walls,” all day, she added.

Issues such as these are being discussed by the 36-member Hopkinton Reentry Group, which meets throughout the summer. Members will examine many issues, including delivery of curriculum and instruction, transportation and food service, different scheduling scenarios, and health and safety protocols, including social distancing parameters.

The group has been tasked with making recommendations for the best plan for school reopening.

The final decision on school reopening will be made by the superintendent and central office administration.

In other issues, committee members voted Amanda Fargiano as chair and Nancy Cavanaugh as vice chair. The board reorganization is traditionally done after the spring elections. Batlle-Rafferty and Joe Markey are the newest members of the committee, replacing Jen Devlin and former chair Meena Bharath, who did not seek reelection.

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