The School Committee at Thursday’s meeting approved the fiscal year 2023 budget of $57,116,438 and discussed a range of topics from updating the school calendar to the decrease in COVID-19 cases in schools over the past week.
The committee approved by a 4-0-1 vote the proposed FY 2023 school budget after considering presentations on budget requests for the past several weeks. Member Meg Tyler abstained after speaking about her concern over out-of-district placements for students with disabilities, stressing the need for inclusivity.
She cited a recent publication by the National Council on Disability that showed that Massachusetts had the third-highest rate of out-of-district school placement for students with disabilities.
“I would ask us going forward to take even greater care than is already given — and I know a lot of care is already given, that is no question of mine — to take more care over each individual placement,” she said, stressing in-district alternatives. “We need to reconsider what very much resembles segregation-era thinking.”
She stressed that students with disabilities are affected later in life by this separation and fare better when they are educated among students their own age.
Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh noted that the parents usually are the ones who choose out-of-district placements for their children in consultation with the administration and medical providers.
“I really just want to be careful that people don’t think that the schools are asking students to leave or are excluding students in some way,” she said, adding that approximately 0.7 percent of students are placed out of district.
The budget will be submitted to the town manager’s office in preparation for its review by town committees before being voted upon at Town Meeting.
School calendar changes debated
The committee continued its public discussion from the previous week on including more holidays into the school calendar in an effort to balance the need to recognize Hopkinton’s diversity while not disrupting the flow of in-class instruction.
Member Amanda Fargiano, who served on the calendar subcommittee, explained the reasoning behind the proposed changes. She noted that several of the proposed additional holidays are in the fall, which would be disruptive to students adjusting to a school routine.
“The focus on the continuity of learning is kind of complicated,” she said. “And I think what we discovered in the discussion, which was very rich, were different takes on what would ensure continuity.”
She added that unlike private businesses where people can take personal days, students and teachers need to be in the classrooms. Even students who have excused holidays can feel stressed about missing class. The subcommittee ultimately recommended adding three holidays: Eid al-Fitr, Lunar New Year and Diwali.
Member Joe Markey pointed out that this decision veered from the data collected from a community-wide survey.
“I think that the decision itself became mired in a lot of discussion and sensitivity that maybe was above and beyond what the survey data indicated was important to people,” he said. Tyler agreed, adding that one group of students should not be disadvantaged over another.
The superintendent noted that the survey was one component in the decision. Also, respondents might not have realized the impact on instruction if teachers and students were to take days off, noting that large numbers of substitute teachers might not be available. She gave Rosh Hashanah and Good Friday as examples.
“You get to a place where you really aren’t operating a school with that kind of efficiency that you would like to,” she said.
Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Parson, who served on the subcommittee, drew a parallel to the recent increase of COVID-19 absences, where consistency is disrupted. She also said the survey didn’t represent all students of families based on the number of respondents, so it was used as a guide.
Said student representative Jessie Ianelli: “Inclusivity is a value that’s very strongly held among the student population.”
Chair Nancy Cavanaugh noted that many families moved to Hopkinton because the Jewish holidays were included in the school calendar and they ”wouldn’t have to make the choice between their faith and being in school.”
Added Fargiano: “If you’re feeling torn, you’re feeling like 100 percent of the subcommittee.”
“I do understand that people have great faiths and spiritual lives that are profound and meaningful,” Tyler noted. “But we are a public educational institution.”
Markey suggested going with the state-mandated holidays because there are “just too many holidays.”
A vote on the calendar was scheduled to be taken at the next meeting on Feb. 3.
COVID-19 case numbers decreasing
The superintendent noted that the number of students and staff absent because of contracting COVID-19 dropped to 150 from 204 the previous two weeks, a 25 percent decrease.
She noted that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has revised its policy on contact tracing, recognizing the burden that it has placed on school nurses and administrative staff. Likewise, DESE announced that the Test and Stay program “was a lot of work with very little benefit,” noting that it was primarily for unvaccinated students.
In response, the district now will distribute a test kit every other Tuesday with two tests so that students and staff members who sign up for the program can test weekly on Wednesdays. The district only will require “symptomatic testing.” This policy will continue until April 22, when it will be re-evaluated.
Tyler spoke out against Hopkinton’s testing of students who return to school on the sixth day after having COVID-19, noting that some students arrive to school and feel embarrassed when they are given a positive result and are sent home.
The superintendent said there would only be one more week of Test and Stay.
Tyler responded with a report she read describing how the socio-emotional impact of being out of school “may be more harmful than the disease itself.” Markey agreed, calling the policy “a mistake.”
“We’ve created this morass of rules,” he said, “and we have to start dismantling it.”
The superintendent said she would take it under advisement, noting that studies show the virus can be transmissible up until Day 8.
The chair said she could “see the issue from both sides,” because one child in her family could return to school on Day 6 while the other could not.
The chair and the superintendent agreed that a vote should not be taken because the topic was not on the posted agenda.
Batlle-Rafferty new ESBC2 voting member
Member Lya Batlle-Rafferty was unanimously voted as the committee’s representative to the Elmwood School Building Community 2 (ESBC2). She is stepping up from the alternate position to replace Markey as the primary representative. Tyler was unanimously approved to be the alternate member.
Markey said he thought it would be helpful to have different voices in the discussion after serving in the role for six months.