School Committee candidates debate COVID recovery strategies at forum

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The three candidates for School Committee talked about their views for educating Hopkinton’s children after the fallout from the pandemic at an HCAM candidates forum Tuesday evening.

School Committee chair Amanda Fargiano, incumbent member Margaret “Meg” Tyler and challenger Jared Pray are vying for two seats in the upcoming election on May 22. Although they shared some common goals, each had a unique perspective that shaped how they would make decisions.

When asked about the most important qualification for a School Committee member, Fargiano said one of her strengths was “being able to process a wide breadth and depth of information across many, many topics.” This skill was useful as she and committee members navigated the challenges of successfully reopening the schools during the COVID-19 crisis, dealing with everything from management of the facilities to the socio-emotional needs of students.

“I like to do an analysis and figure out with a level where to go with that information to help lead the district,” she added.

Tyler said her tenure on the School Committee has taught her to learn from opposing points of view. One of the most trying experiences was being on the Reopening Committee, when many parents wanted their children back in school sooner while others were hesitant about returning too quickly.

“I think that we all have strong emotions, whether we illustrate that or not,” she said. “Part of listening well is learning not to react to how you’re feeling in that moment, but to be able to acknowledge how you’re feeling and be able to synthesize the information.”

Pray said his decision-making abilities will make him an effective School Committee member. He spoke about the “paralysis” during the pandemic about the return to school that made progress frustrating.

“It’s so important that you’re able to make a decision with 60 to 80 percent of the data,” he said, noting he works in the pharmaceutical industry where data is critical. “It’s OK to change direction. It’s OK to change course a little bit but ultimately to make a decision and move forward.”

On priorities, Tyler said that hers was providing support to students and teachers as they transition back to the classroom environment.

“I think we need to be honest about the impact that the pandemic has had on each of us,” she said, “particularly the students, who’ve had their routines disrupted and adult themes circulating in the air a lot of the time, especially this week.”

Pray said that one thing that concerned him was that in a recent student survey, it was “disheartening to see how many of the kids were in a kind of a tough spot from a socio-emotional perspective.”

His other priority is planning for the enrollment growth.

Pandemic recovery also is Fargiano’s goal, academically and emotionally. She noted that every student has had a unique experience during COVID-19, and it will take time to assimilate everyone back to the culture that previously existed at the schools and work on social justice. She also wanted to make sure the school’s facilities would allow the academic, music, art and STEM programs to flourish.

“We’re all Hopkinton,” she added. “We’re all one town, one community. We really have done a lot of work on diversity, equity and inclusion. But we have a lot more work to do.”

Getting back to “normal” will be the greatest challenge, Pray said. He said it will take time before students will be able to return to having the close contact they once enjoyed at lunch tables and activities.

Fargiano explained that the greatest obstacle she sees the committee facing is “to meet each child where they are and to help them be their best selves.”

Some students may have been able to excel remotely and engage in college coursework, while others could not adapt to Zoom. To balance the educational needs with the reality of coping with COVID-19 repercussions is her goal.

“I think the biggest obstacle we face right now is anxiety,” Tyler said. “Anxiety on the part of the teachers, the administration and the kids because we’ve had to adapt so quickly to very difficult circumstances. I think we really need to work on rebuilding the trust. We need the kids to feel that they can trust the schools to be there to support them to help allay their anxiety.”

Regarding the governor’s guidelines to reopen, Fargiano said she is “100 percent behind where we are right now.” She came to this decision after “churning through a lot of data.”

“Our kids need this,” she added. “The kids are very happy to be back, and I think the schools are very safe.”

Tyler agreed with Fargiano’s assessment. However, she also read studies on social distancing and thought that students might have been able to return to class earlier.

She added that the quarantining policy has been called into question by some parents, who wanted longer quarantines due to spikes.

“I think the state started conservative, and it was the right way to go,” Pray said. “If there’s anything I would have done differently, it would be the way the district reacted to those guidelines.”

He added that neighboring communities returned to school more quickly than Hopkinton, in some cases “many months before.”

Fargiano responded, saying that “everyone was looking over their shoulders at other districts.” Toward that end, she convened a roundtable discussion group of 12 school committee chairs to see how things were progressing in their areas to see what could be learned.

“One thing that I learned is that there’s always a unique set of circumstances,” she said. “There’s never an exact match.”

All candidates agreed that keeping the schools at a high caliber was a priority, as it helps to drive up property values and support the businesses. They also talked about ways to incorporate digital learning into the classroom post-pandemic.

“In some ways it would be disappointing if we didn’t look at ways in which this worked,” Pray said of learning online.

The three candidates were supportive of the music program and seeing students performing live again. They also wanted to see after-school programming return in full force.

“For so many kids, they find their identity in extracurriculars,” Fargiano said. “I think we have to make it a priority to get all of our in-person activities up and running as soon as possible.”

Pray noted that there is a mentality that the pandemic is over.

“There’s still a lot that we need to do in terms of COVID,” he said. “I don’t think that Hopkinton needs to be on the leading edge of anything, whether it’s kids sitting together at lunch or doing away with masks. But I think it’s also important that we are progressive as we think about these changes and that we don’t sit back and wait for state-mandated deadlines.”

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