School Committee not ready to vote on rescinding mask mandate at HHS

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Following an hour-long discussion Thursday night, the School Committee decided to hold off on a vote to rescind the mask requirement at Hopkinton High School at least until its Oct. 21 meeting.

Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh outlined the updated mask policy from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). She explained that if an individual school has a vaccination rate that exceeds 80 percent among staff and students, fully vaccinated individuals could be given the option to remove their masks if approved by that district’s school committee. This policy is called “off ramping.”

Everyone in the building, including teachers, students, administrators and support personnel, must be included in that percentage.

“It’s a very big decision to make,” she said.

Hopkinton Health Director Shaun McAuliffe said that the decision must be made by the local school committee in consultation with the administration and public health officials. He noted that Hopkinton has one of the highest vaccination rates in the state.

In the age ranges between 12-15 and 16-19, about 95 percent of those individuals have been fully vaccinated. Overall, 82 percent of eligible town residents have been fully vaccinated, with 88 percent having received at least one dose, the numbers show.

“We’re in a good spot,” McAuliffe said. “[However], we do have a significant population within the community that is traveling, and that travel is driving roughly 70 percent of our cases in town.”

Thirty-seven percent of the breakthrough cases have occurred in people who have taken the Pfizer vaccine versus 26 percent for Moderna and 4 percent for Johnson & Johnson.

One challenge is that children under the age of 12 still are ineligible for the vaccine. McAuliffe said he believed they would be able to start vaccinating this population “within the next three weeks.”

Another concern is that, although Hopkinton’s student-athletes now are mostly playing outdoors, the winter will see athletic contests move indoors. Teams could be from communities that do not have the same high vaccination rates, which could lead to exposure to COVID-19. The superintendent said there are 650 student athletes between the middle and high schools in town.

McAuliffe also mentioned that flu season is beginning, and the spread of the flu could be better controlled if masks were worn.

“The Health Department feels that it’s prudent to stay the course with face coverings — at least until we get to a point where we can get our 12-and-unders vaccinated above 80 percent,” he continued. He noted that in neighboring districts that started the year without a mask policy in place, “They’ve had a considerable amount of illness and a significant amount of disruption.”

“One of the problems with having a highly vaccinated community is that you have a lot more asymptomatic cases [of COVID-19],” McAuliffe added. “A face covering is just an added layer of protection.”

“I want to congratulate Hopkinton for getting to where we are,” School Committee Member Joe Markey said. “I think 95 percent is close enough from a marketing perspective to say everyone.”

Markey said that the decision to stay masked should not be based on preventing the flu and respiratory viruses but solely on the risk for COVID-19.

“We’re hearing something from the health director that is very antithetical to what the state is saying,” Markey said. “It is up to us elected officials to make decisions that we think are rational.”

He asked if the policy could be reversed if there were an uptick, and if the schools had data on who has been vaccinated.

The superintendent said that it would depend upon the wording of the motion, but because the committee meets every other week, a stipulation could be added that an emergency School Committee meeting could be called. The school nurse would have to compile all the data of vaccinated students, which would be logistically challenging.

In addition to their duties as nurses, they also now must administer COVID-19 rapid antigen tests as part of the Test and Stay program, as well as notify families about contact tracing.

Member Amanda Fargiano reminded the committee that masks still would be required on school buses due to the federal mandate.

Markey asked HHS student representatives Jessie lanelli and Ryan Darbhanga about mask use in the cafeterias while not eating. Ianelli said it “was about 50-50.”

Darbhanga said many students after eating in the cafeteria will wear their masks below the nose in the hallways, “which defeats the purpose.”

Member Meg Tyler asked if the mask policy could be modified so that a teacher or a student presenting in front of the class could remove the mask if standing 6 feet away from the rest of the class. McAuliffe said that he would check with DESE.

Markey made a motion to support the off-ramping of the mask policy at the high school. However, none of his colleagues seconded it. During further discussion, members said they wanted to take more time to analyze the data.

Tyler said she was concerned about bullying if students who still needed to wear masks were harassed, as well as students in vulnerable populations.

Chair Nancy Cavanaugh said that her goal is to not have to pivot back to remote learning if there were an outbreak, noting she was not comfortable with voting on the off-ramping at this meeting.

“You have done well by the town,” she told McAuliffe.

Trail update provided

Jane Moran, chair of the Upper Charles Trail Committee (UCTC), updated the committee on the proposed continuation of the Upper Charles Trail from the Milford site to the Hopkinton State Park site. She has been working on this effort for nine years.

Moran explained that the Select Board has charged the UCTC to continue the trail using town open space as well as property could be purchased. She said there was a possibility that the trail could go on the boundary of the school property, and a pre-engineering study was done to go from the Center Trail through school property, crossing the loop road twice and then exiting at Hayden Rowe Street. This was completed last year.

Now the UCTC needs School Committee approval to be able to apply for grant funding for an engineering study for the trail. Because wetlands are involved, the engineering study would help determine factors such as if a bridge or different surfaces would need to be used. She stressed that it would not interfere with school property but would be on the buffer. The approval of multiple boards would be needed in addition to the School Committee, including the Parks & Recreation Commission and the Select Board.

Markey said he “would be a lot more comfortable” if the school’s Buildings and Grounds Department representative was present before a vote was taken to speak to the School Department’s interests.

Moran noted that this is the first step in a long process where multiple committees will have input.

Because it was not on the agenda for a vote, Nancy Cavanaugh said that it would be put on the agenda for the next meeting.

Allergy policy discussed

The committee also talked about the life-threatening allergy (LTA) policy. Three parents at the meeting brought up their concerns that a teacher had peanuts in a classroom where a student was allergic, which could result in anaphylaxis if that student were exposed.

There was a discussion about what was considered procedural and under the purview of the superintendent versus what was a policy that the committee would oversee. The language will be reviewed and discussed at the next meeting to see if revisions need to be made to the policy.