School Committee debates mask policy for athletics, gets MCAS update

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The School Committee at its Monday night meeting discussed two major issues: the policy regarding wearing masks at school athletic events as well as the district’s MCAS scores.

Athletic Director Rich Cormier appeared before the committee to request its guidance about what the mask policy should be at school sporting events, considering that the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) has not issued a recommendation since August.

However, no vote was taken this meeting, as the issue about whether the school’s policy during the day should apply to extracurricular activities was not resolved due to unclear guidance from the MIAA.

Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh explained that when the decision to lift the mask mandate on a three-week trial basis was made for the high school, that policy was for school buildings. However, there was an understanding that any policy, such as the federal mandate requiring mask use on school buses, would supersede the high school policy.

“What we’ve come to learn is that there’s sort of a movement in MIAA to allow people to make decisions at the local level,” she said. “But the problem, I think, is that there’s sort of a disconnect between what MIAA is saying and what DESE [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] is saying.”

Data has been collected on the vaccination status of students and staff at the high school to determine if the school met DESE’s requirement of an 80 percent COVID-vaccination threshold to allow for those vaccinated individuals to be able to remove their masks.

The problem is that there are teams and fans coming in from other towns that might not have met that standard.

“As everyone knows, I guess we’re one of the few schools that can even have this conversation,” Cormier said. He described the complexity of having one policy during the day and another one to participate in or watch sports, particularly indoors. Another layer is that the other teams, their fans and the officials may be required to wear masks.

In an email chain with the MIAA, Cormier said that a mask policy was “up to the local district’s discretion.” But who determined that was not made clear.

“There has been nothing formally communicated through the membership of the MIAA to the schools – and there’s over 300 schools – other than this email, and I pointed out that fact that it was nice to email me after I asked,” he added.

There was supposed to be an update from the MIAA on Oct. 1, but Cormier said it has not been provided.

“From a management standpoint, it is almost like we have to trust people and ask if they’re not vaccinated to please wear a mask,” Cormier continued. “Or we just have to stick with what we’re doing and have everyone masked.”

Member Amanda Fargiano brought up the issue of “parity for the competition” if Hopkinton athletes were allowed to go unmasked while the other team had a mask requirement.

“There’s a difference between us doing it because it’s the fair thing to do versus whether or not we’re mandated to do it,” Cormier said.

Member Lya Batlle-Rafferty said she was uncomfortable voting on the matter, noting that the vaccination rate of those present in a room during the competition could dip below the 80 percent standard. But Member Joe Markey countered that the 80 percent requirement applied to “the school community” — not people in one room.

Markey added that he hoped that checking vaccination status would not end up being a requirement for attendance at sporting events.

The superintendent’s concern was that students could be exposed to COVID-19 by someone who was asymptomatic and have to miss time in school. The same would be true if they displayed cold or flu symptoms until they have a negative COVID-19 test.

“I would think that if you’re having other teams come in who have to wear masks, it’s just more decorous to wear masks,” said Member Meg Tyler.

Chair Nancy Cavanaugh postponed a vote because some members were uncomfortable making a decision at that time. She added that this aspect would need to be included once the trial period has ended and the policy is revised.

Hopkinton praised by DESE for mask off-ramping policy

The superintendent said that she received a call from DESE’s deputy commissioner Monday afternoon to compliment the district on its implementation of the off-ramping of the mask policy for the trial period.

“He and several other districts across the state are actually kind of putting that out as a model, so that was very nice,” she said.

Hopkinton’s MCAS scores beat state average

The superintendent provided a breakdown of students’ MCAS scores for 2021, which showed that Hopkinton fared better than the state average. In some cases, the scores were similar to those in 2019.

Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Parson noted that the administration of the test was challenging during COVID-19 because younger remote students were allowed to take the test at home. In Grades 3-8, students only had to take half of the test in each subject, but some chose the first half while others took the second one. Also, students in the Class of 2022 were not required to take the English language arts (ELA) and math tests, but some did so for scholarship purposes.

In math for Grades 3-10, Hopkinton students either performed as “exceeded expectations” or “met expectations” at rates ranging from 65 to 84 percent, with rates almost always increasing by grade level. From Grades 3-9, about a third of the state’s students reached that level or achievement, with the state rate at 52 percent for Grade 10.

“I think we worried so much about how much students would lose and how much the dip would be,” she added. “But it wasn’t as dramatic as we worried.”

In comparing scores from 2018, 2019 and 2021, the drops ranged from only a few points to 12 points in Grade 5 English.

Now that the MCAS data is available, teachers are looking for patterns where there could be areas for improvement.

To help with any learning gaps, ELA tutors have been hired through a grant for Elmwood and the middle school, while the high school has added tutors for ELA, math and science. At the high school, “flex block” times allow students to receive support from teachers.

Equity and access for historically marginalized populations was also stressed.

One issue for Tyler was additional training for staff in specialized reading programs called Leveled Literacy Intervention and Wilson Reading System.

“Why is there only specialized training for the elementary school in Leveled Literacy Intervention and Wilson when neither are effective for students with specific learning disabilities in reading, who are 15 percent of the population?” she asked. “This 15 percent — they have been struggling for years. … We are failing these kids when it comes to literacy.”

FY23 Capital Plan approved

The committee unanimously approved the Fiscal Year 2023 capital plan. It includes $325,000 for the high school auditorium stage and lighting upgrade; $75,000 in districtwide intermediate distribution frame switches (technology upgrade); $60,000 that previously was approved for wetlands restoration; and $475,000 for air handling unit replacement.

Also included was $6,287,000 for solar and battery storage purchases. Although a 20-year loan would need to be taken, the revenue generated would more than pay for the expense over the 25-year life span of the solar panels, explained Finance Director Susan Rothermich. If the solar panels and battery storage were rented, all the revenue would go to the owner rather than the department.