Editor’s note: This story was updated with a statement from Joe Markey.
The School Committee met for nearly three hours Thursday night to tackle some longstanding controversial topics, including the mask policy debate and the approval of the school calendar that now will include additional holidays representing Hopkinton’s diverse cultures. It also discussed a resident’s accusation of an open meeting law violation by two committee members.
At the start of the meeting, Chair Nancy Cavanaugh noted that she received a flurry of emails, probably more than she had ever received since becoming chair. Most focused on the ongoing school mask policy debate, while others were for or against upcoming changes to the school calendar and allegations made against members Joe Markey and Meg Tyler for holding a Zoom meeting to discuss school committee policy.
The school mask policy issue has sharply divided this town as well as other communities in Massachusetts struggling with the same concerns. There were 51 emails received calling for the removal of the mask requirement, while 56 asked for the mask mandate to be continued and one advocated for the mandate to be lifted on March 7, a date that the committee later considered — and expressed optimism about implementing — but members agreed to wait until a future meeting before voting on it, so that they could see updated COVID-19 data.
Three people expressed concerns about the potential violation of the state’s open meeting law by Markey and Tyler. Two addressed transportation concerns.
The chair and Vice Chair Amanda Fargiano took turns reading a selection of emails that they chose to be a representative sample of what had been received. Most read during about 15 minutes took sharp stances either for or against the mask policy.
The most explosive email was submitted by Becky Abate, the president of the Hopkinton Teachers Association, on behalf of its board regarding the mask policy and the possible open meeting violation by Tyler and Markey. The chair read the entire email, which also was sent to The Hopkinton Independent, but excluded the names of the accused members. The matter was discussed later in the meeting, when it was decided — with support from Markey and Tyler — that Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh and her director of human resources will investigate the complaint and determine whether there is any merit to it.
“The HTA has been deeply troubled that the School Committee would not engage in mandatory bargaining, ridiculously calling the mask policy ‘educational policy’ rather than a matter of health and safety which is subject to such mandated bargaining,” her letter stated regarding the mask policy. “Mr. Markey has not received any credentials as a Public Health expert since that [December] meeting, and yet, he is once again seeking to make sweeping decisions for the students and staff of Hopkinton Public Schools that in his own words he is not qualified to make.
“Although our School Committee members are not educators, they are representatives of our school community and we can and should hold them to the same standards of professionalism and integrity that we hold our students and educators,” the letter continued. “Hopkinton students are taught that when we have conflicts we work together to find resolutions. Hopkinton students are taught that when we have conflicts, the best path to take towards resolution is one in which we act with honesty. Mr. Markey and Ms. Tyler, Hopkinton educators would have no choice but to give you a failing grade for your inability to meet the expectations of the assignment of a School Committee member. Our students, and the educators who serve them, deserve better.”
In a statement the following day, Markey defended himself, noting his history of civic engagement and consensus building on complex issues in Hopkinton going back 18 years.
“As an elected volunteer, I’m very well aware of the rights, limits and duties I have in communicating with people,” he stated. “By engaging and building ties with the community, committee members can facilitate civic engagement and increase committee awareness of the full range of community sentiment on important issues.”
Fargiano read a letter expressing concern about the addition of days off that are representative of diverse cultures. The letter suggested that half-days should be considered.
Mask policy vote delayed to future meeting
The committee heard advice from Health Director Shaun McAuliffe, Board of Health Chair Lisa Whittemore and the superintendent. The latest COVID-19 data was presented before the committee considered a vote to lift the mask mandate.
Vaccination rates as of Jan. 26 averaged 95 percent for all age groups with the exception of ages of 20-29, of whom 87 percent of whom are vaccinated.
As of Jan. 27, Hopkinton had a 17.12 percent positivity rate, down from the previous week’s rate of 22.19, the highest rate during January. The case count on that date was 412.
The superintendent expressed concern about the disruption of education as more students and staff members have been absent because they have tested positive for COVID-19 since the omicron variant surge. This has increased stress for both students and teachers.
“There is something to be worried about when you don’t have teachers to put in front of kids and you have kids missing from your classrooms,” she stressed. Teachers have been slowing the instruction because they can’t introduce new concepts while kids are absent. Remedial attention then has to be given to individual students.
The superintendent noted that some students have had to receive incomplete grades due to absenteeism. On Wednesday, Feb. 2, there were 66 students and staff members absent, down from a high point of 204 during the first two weeks in January.
There was a concern at Elmwood because there currently are six positive COVID-19 students in one classroom.
The superintendent also announced that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has granted off-ramping ability to all of Hopkinton’s schools because of the high vaccination rates. The committee would need to approve the change.
At that point, Markey said he was excited that DESE has granted the waiver. He requested that a seven-day case rate be presented, as well as a case percentage by school and by town.
McAuliffe said there is an average this week of seven cases per day. However, hospitals tend to post their data on the weekend. “We think that we are going to end up with 100 cases by the end of this week,” he said.
As of Thursday morning, a third of the cases were in school-aged children.
McAuliffe stressed that none of the home test results are reported to the state’s Department of Public Health.
The chair said she would like to hear the recommendation from McAuliffe and Cavanaugh, which other members echoed.
Tyler said that she appreciated the input from the superintendent and the Board of Health. However, she questioned whether the discussion was “lopsided” because it didn’t include information from health professionals with opposing views so that the information “would be more representative of the community.”
All three physicians who sent in emails supported masking, the chair noted, while the emails from nurses were split.
“There is not a right answer here,” Whittemore said. “I think that’s the most important thing to say.”
Tyler noted that the debate is “driving a stake in the heart of most communities in Massachusetts.”
“I feel like we’re doing so much damage to the community somehow. I don’t know how to fix it,” she continued. “I feel the hatred and the rage and the vengeful attitudes in the community.”
Markey said that the debate now “isn’t about data; it’s about judgment.” He said the committee has been “contributing to community angst” by continuing to bring up the debate.
Member Lya Batlle-Rafferty said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still has the community in the red zone and that the town’s public board and committee meetings are virtual. From her perspective, masking seemed reasonable at this time to protect students.
She added that while masking may be causing emotional hardships to students, it is not the only factor contributing to the state of their mental health. She noted that some students were scared to attend school because of the outbreak, while others have experienced the impact of COVID-19 through the illness or death of a family member.
Said Batlle-Rafferty: “My point is mental health cannot all be boiled down to masks, and sometimes these conversations frustrate me a bit.”
Markey made a motion that the mask mandate be lifted on March 7 in keeping with the recommendation from DESE, which Tyler seconded. The other three members, while optimistic about that date, expressed hesitancy about voting on the measure that evening, suggesting that it be brought up at the next meeting in two weeks.
Markey withdrew his motion, and Tyler withdrew her second.
“There’s not one of us that doesn’t want what’s best for our kids,” the chair said during the discussion.
Calendar with more holidays approved
The committee voted 3-1-1 to approve the proposed new school year calendar, which will include days off for Lunar New Year, Eid Al-Adha and Eid Al-Fitr. Markey voted against it, while Tyler was absent at that point of the meeting and was recorded as an abstention.
The superintendent noted that a survey had been taken to gather data from staff, parents and students. She stressed that it was not meant to be the only determining factor in making the decision. Inclusivity was a determining factor as well.
Batlle-Rafferty made the point that, by adding Eid Al-Adha, Eid Al-Fitr and the Lunar New Year to the calendar cycle, it would allow teachers practicing those faiths to consider coming to Hopkinton because they would feel their cultures are being respected and that they are welcomed. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur also continue to be included.
“What we’re doing is signaling to a possible more diverse group of employees that, ‘Look, we value you coming here,’ ” she said. “You won’t have to spend your personal days on these holidays because we have taken that into account, and we are trying to welcome you.”
The superintendent noted that, for the next few years, some of the new holidays will occur on the weekend. By including them, she said that the school year will not be elongated compared to the average school year end date over the past several years.
FY 23 budget concern mentioned
The superintendent announced that while the town believed that its fiscal year 2023 budget was balanced, late developments are forcing the numbers to be addressed again.
“The community does not have a balanced budget,” she noted. “It is facing a deficit that is related to a disputed Eversource tax increase.”
The superintendent said that the School Department is “really committed” to working with the town manager and chief financial officer to collaborate on how this change would affect the FY 23 budget for the schools.
Officer Powers recognized upon his retirement
School Resource Officer Phil Powers was recognized for his dedication for the past 21 years to the students of Hopkinton. He left the force last week at the mandatory retirement age of 65.
“I know that the kids are going to miss him, and he is really going to miss the kids,” the superintendent said. Several members of the committee expressed appreciation for his service.