Hopkinton School Committee members agreed unanimously Thursday to start school using a hybrid model that combines in-person learning and remote education.
The school year will start Sept. 16, the committee agreed. This allows for 10 days of professional training and planning ahead of a year that will look very different than most.
In this model, students would be assigned to one of two groups (which they would be told in about a week). Students in each group would attend school at home one day and then have in-person education the next. The other group would have the same schedule, but on opposing days.
This so-called “A/B model” was chosen because it best reflects the natural rhythm of school year, superintendent of schools Carol Cavanaugh said.
Students also may opt for a fully remote educational option.
About 75 percent of 1,172 parents said they preferred a hybrid model while 25 percent opted for remote instruction, according to survey results presented at the meeting.
The hybrid option was one of three the state required each school district to develop. Plans were submitted for fully remote learning, fully in-person education and the hybrid model that Hopkinton selected.
The three options were required to ensure that schools could make a switch to another model quickly if circumstances warrant it.
Cavanaugh recommended the hybrid model because she said the buildings will not accommodate the entire school body in place at a distance of 6 feet, which is the safety standard the district plans to follow. This would be a particular issue at lunch, where students would have to remove their masks to eat.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said students could be kept 3 feet apart, but Cavanaugh has said she is not comfortable with that distance, noting that 6 feet of separation is mandated in public places such as grocery stores.
Hopkinton could go to a full return to school, based on metrics set by the state. Fewer than 1 percent of Hopkinton residents had a positive test result, which means school could be fully reopened or reopen with a hybrid model under extenuating circumstances. Cavanaugh said the extenuating circumstances included the lack of space to have lunch safely.
She stressed that the plan would depend on successful negotiations with the Hopkinton Teachers Association (HTA).
Members of the HTA have not endorsed a specific plan but have raised questions about whether students and staff can return to school safely.
“Can we, within the operational and staffing realities of Hopkinton Public Schools, adhere to the rules of safety and provide a quality education to our students while serving their social emotional needs as well?” HTA president Becky Abate asked in a letter that was read aloud at the meeting.
“When these questions can be answered with certainty, we will celebrate a return to the school building, hybrid or otherwise. But until then we implore the decision-makers of Hopkinton Public Schools to explore other paths and find creative solutions to achieve the excellence that our students and staff deserve and demand,” the letter read.
The association raised questions about how the “quality of teaching and learning [would] be impacted with a schedule that includes dramatically shortened classes along with frequent disruptions for mask breaks and cleaning.”
The HTA also expressed concern about how learning might be impacted by “frequent absences by teachers who must remain out for any COVID-19 symptoms, or who may be out to care for family members, or provide care to children whose own schools may enforce a quarantine or COVID-related closure.”
Cavanaugh said negotiations with the HTA were progressing and that the district hears the concerns of teachers.
She said the district is looking into providing child care for the children of Hopkinton teachers as one method to help support the educators.
“We want to bring our people back,” she said. “I value every one of the teachers in the Hopkinton schools.”
The adoption of the hybrid model was approved with the stipulation that the district could pivot to another model as needed if the agreed upon metrics were met. Those metrics were not specified at the meeting. There was discussion of reviewing these metrics at a future meeting.
Although he eventually went along with the hybrid model if a change was possible in the future, committee member Joe Markey said he supported a full return to school.
He said that other social situations with children, including Little League games and the district’s own extended-year summer program, resulted in no problems.
He noted that the district had placed strict standards in place for safety issues such as cleaning rooms and mandating masks. The district also has purchased considerable equipment, including face shields and plexiglass barriers.
“There are few communities in Massachusetts, if not the entire country, more prepared for full return,” he said.
Committee chair Amanda Fargiano said the committee “picked an option that will serve Hopkinton well, as conditions hold.”
She said she hopes “the staff and students fall into our new pandemic rhythm and make this a good year.”