School Committee hears from public on full reopening, might vote next Thursday

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The School Committee could officially determine a school reopening plan next Thursday, committee chair Amanda Fargiano said at a public forum Thursday night to discuss issues related to the reopening.

A School Committee working session to further discuss the issue will be held at 12:30 p.m. Sunday. The committee will host its next regular meeting March 11, when a vote could be taken.

Schools tentatively will reopen for students in kindergarten through Grade 5 on March 29, superintendent Carol Cavanaugh said Thursday.

Middle school tentatively will reopen April 5. The high school reopening date has yet to be set.

The forum was held to answer questions submitted by community members about reopening plans and rationales.

The time has come, Cavanaugh said, to open the school doors full-time.

“Kids need school, they need their peers,’’ she said.

Opening school in the spring also could alleviate some anxieties about the fall, she said. This alone could make for a less stressful summer, she added, and “just might be worth it mentally” for everyone.

A remote model will be available for families who do not wish to have their children attend school in person.

But questions remain about whether remote students can transition to a full-time model.

Earlier in the year, Cavanaugh had said that remote students would need to remain in that learning mode throughout the year, due to issues of logistics involved in moving them to a different model.

But state education commissioner Jeffrey Riley could decide differently. That decision could be announced soon, she said.

This could require “the need for the dismantling of remote classrooms,” Cavanaugh said. “This will be entirely predicated on student interest levels, Riley’s decision and the schools’ ability to absorb students at each grade level.’’

When schools reopen this spring, the social distancing requirement will be reduced from 6 feet to 4.

Students in K-5 at Hopkins, Elmwood and Marathon schools will maintain their regular school full day. Lunch will be served in gymnasiums and cafeterias. Physical education classes will be moved outdoors; in inclement weather, wellness lessons will be taught instead.

Middle school will remain in school for the full school day, 7:25 a.m. to 1:50 p.m.

High school students will attend in person 7:25 to 11:45 a.m., then will be transported home where they will have lunch and then will have their final class of the day via Zoom at 12:45 p.m. This was done because having lunch in school was not possible with the required social distancing, principal Evan Bishop said.

MCAS testing will be required this spring. The primary motivation of the testing is to determine where students stand academically, Cavanaugh said, and what help may be needed.

Students have, for the most part, accomplished what they need to academically, assistant superintendent Jennifer Parson said. What has been missing, she said, are the “extras” such as activities and other opportunities that enrich the educational experience and “make learning enjoyable.”

Teachers have been focused on “the standards that we know are critically important for each grade,” she said.

Vaccines will be available to teachers beginning March 11, which Fargiano described as “really great news.”

The Hopkinton Teachers Association has criticized calls for schools to reopen before a vaccine was widely available for teachers. The School Committee had urged the state to prioritize teachers in the vaccine timetable.

“It’s regrettable,” Cavanaugh said, that the “reopening timeline outpaced the availability of the vaccine.”

A frequent theme throughout the meeting was appreciation for everyone’s efforts during the challenging time.

Hopkins School principal Vanessa Bilello reminded adults, as she says she does to her students, about the power of words and the impact they can have on others.

She urged the community to “remain positive to each other and show gratitude and hope for each other and recognition that this is hard for all of us.”