School Committee raises concerns about reopening plan; parents of remote students to be surveyed

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School Committee members raised concerns about several issues, including potential class sizes at the middle and high school and crowded conditions in the high school hallways, during a discussion on school reopening plans at a working session Sunday.

The issue of reopening schools full-time will be further discussed at the next School Committee meeting this Thursday, with the potential for a vote to be taken then.

Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh said she soon will send a survey to parents of remote students asking whether they will choose to send their students full-time or remain in the remote model. A hybrid model, which alternates in-person with remote classes, will no longer be available.

Knowing this information will help with scheduling, she said.

Earlier in the academic year, Cavanaugh asked remote students to remain in that mode for the full year, citing logistical challenges, but the state is requiring schools to allow remote students to return for the full-time option if they choose.

Hopkinton elementary schools are expected to reopen by March 29, with the middle school reopening proposed for April 5. No date has been set for high school reopening.

Current reopening plans call for Hopkins, Elmwood and Marathon elementary schools to retain their usual schedule, with lunch served in cafeterias and gyms. Physical education classes will be held outdoors or, during inclement weather, as wellness lessons in class, because the gymnasium will be used for lunches.

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

The high school will have a different schedule, with students attending four periods in the building, starting at 7:25 a.m. through 11:45 a.m. Students will return home, where they will have lunch before logging into Zoom for their final class of the day at 12:45 p.m. Students can take grab-and-go lunches with them before leaving the building.

A major advantage of the return to full-time in-person is an increase in the hours students spend on learning. Those learning hours are expected to increase from 35 hours over two weeks to at least 50 hours in the same time period, Cavanaugh said.

Students appear to have fallen about three months behind academically. Cavanaugh said she “feels pretty good about” about that number, considering all the disruptions of COVID.

Citing scientific research, committee members agreed that, when wearing masks, students can safely maintain a distance of 3 feet apart, half of the 6 feet distance originally implemented.

A major point of discussion involved some larger than preferred class sizes that will be necessary in the reopening. The high school will have 53 classes with over 25 students, with four classes over 30 students. At the middle school, eight classes will feature more than 30 students.

These numbers are higher than usual, Cavanaugh said, but they allow for students to have the same teacher they have had all year. Lowering class size could involve changing teachers, and she said parents and students have said they prefer keeping the same teacher.

Committee member Meg Tyler said, “It’s hard for me to see the point” of these sizes, citing a Spanish class with 31 students. A class with that many students makes individual student interaction more challenging, she said, in a subject where this is critical.

The class sizes are “a stumbling block to me,” committee member Nancy Cavanaugh said.

Committee member Joe Markey countered that the district has “done a good job of minimizing this kind of impact.” He said the larger classes represent “a percentage of all classes.”

The total cost of reopening is estimated at $220,292, with expenses including new furniture, lunch monitors and an additional bus run at the high school. The cost will be covered primarily by COVID relief funding, with $57,335 taken out of the capital budget, the superintendent said.

Concerns also were raised about potentially crowded conditions in the hallways and bathrooms at the high school.

Ongoing construction at the site has limited staircases to two, one designated for traveling up and the other down. Class dismissal times will be staggered to minimize hallway traffic.

“That hallway traffic really concerns me,” committee member Lya Batlle-Rafferty said.

The decision on reopening is not an easy one, committee members said, and “no matter what we do, we’re not going to be pleasing to all,” Tyler said.

Committee chair Amanda Fargiano said that, in making the decision on reopening, the key is “doing what’s right for Hopkinton.”

“We shouldn’t think of the impact on one cohort of kids,” she said. “We need to think of all kids equally.”

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