School Committee roundup: Enrollment numbers continue to rise; mask requirement debated

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The School Committee on Thursday night discussed a number of issues at its hybrid meeting from the HCAM studio, including enrollment figures for the upcoming year and the importance of growing the Special Education Parents Advisory Council (SEPAC) to help address the issues faced by parents of students with disabilities.

School enrollment up, especially in lower grades

Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh gave an update on enrollment numbers. The number of students who have indicated they will be leaving the Hopkinton Public School system is 49, with the highest number in Grade 9 at 17 students. The current enrollment is down four from the previous year for the ninth grade, but the superintendent explained that is normal for students transitioning to high school.

“As kids leave middle school and go off to high school, there are some who make different educational choices,” she said.

The total new student enrollment is 491, compared with 328 who graduated, and it is expected to increase. Six students who were educated at home will be returning to the school system. Nineteen students are returning to the system from public, private or charter schools elsewhere.

Numbers also were released for students studying outside the school district. There will be 26 Hopkinton students enrolled at Keefe Tech, four at the Norfolk County Agricultural School in Walpole, and 23 who will be attending out of district. These numbers are consistent with the previous year.

Chair Nancy Cavanaugh pointed out that the budget only allocated for a gain of 72 students. Right now there is a net gain of 163, with more expected to enroll over the summer.

Committee member Amanda Fargiano asked about the increase in enrollment for Grades 1 and 2. There is an increase of 27 students in Grade 1, with an additional 16 students in Grade 2. She asked if there might be a need to create another class.

“Are we currently feeling like we’re all set to absorb those kids?” she asked.

The superintendent said she will be keeping an eye on enrollment numbers, and if a hire were needed, it would be addressed.

In a separate matter, the superintendent announced that an additional $5.5 million in federal funding will be coming to Hopkinton. The money can be spent in Fiscal Years 2022 and 2023 and during the first six months of FY ’24.

Mask requirement for younger grades debated

Another issue that was discussed was the need for students to wear masks during summer programming. Carol Cavanaugh said that there is a discrepancy between the current mask policy of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). DESE’s policy is that there is no official guidance, but that masks are encouraged for those who are not vaccinated. By contrast, the CDC has been recommending mask use for those who have not been vaccinated.

As of July 1, 93 percent of those age 16-19 have been vaccinated, which the superintendent called “an incredible percentage.”

“It felt like it might be excessive to keep our students who are coming to our programs masked, especially given the fact that they’ve all had the opportunity for vaccines,” she said of students in Grades 6-12. Masks will be optional for them, especially because they are in buildings that are not air conditioned.

For Grades K through 5, the superintendent recommended that those students wear masks in the summer programs.

Member Joe Markey disagreed with the mask requirement, noting that children are playing in close contact in other situations, as well as going shopping. He called schools “the last bastion of masks.”

The superintendent said that it sends a confusing message to young students to recommend masks, because some will while others won’t.

“It just strikes me as not just cautious but bureaucratic to continue to require masks for children ages 12 and under, when they can experience every other element of life without masks,” Markey said.

“I feel comfortable going with the advice of the CDC and our public health official [Shaun McAuliffe],” Cavanaugh replied.

SEPAC looks to grow

Jen Halliday, chair of SEPAC, addressed the committee. She said she had been asked to take over the program in May of 2020 to ensure that it would be able to continue, as it had planned to disband. Despite only being a district resident for a year and a half, she took on the role.

“What helped me most, as the parent of a child with a disability, is the connections I made with other moms and dads who were experiencing similar problems,” she noted. “A common feeling for parents with disabled children is a feeling of isolation.”

Last year, she created a welcome brochure and a resource list. She also hosted presentations from the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) and a financial planning workshop with the law firm Fletcher Tilton.

The biggest need, according to Halliday, is for parents to join the board and to volunteer. There are 650 students who are involved in special education, and more than half of parents surveyed said they wanted to see more activities for their children.

School Committee members offered suggestions to increase involvement. They included reaching out through public awareness campaigns, holding elections in the near future, and asking parents of graduates of special education programming to participate.

Student internship program a success

Assistant superintendent Jennifer Parson spoke about the success of the student internship program for seniors this spring called the High School Senior Intern Education Project (HSSIEP), which allowed students who were interested in teaching to work in the classroom for more than 100 hours helping students either in groups or individually. It was funded by DESE and facilitated by a company called MassHire Metro South/West. Among the 10 interns, one did presentations on coding while three were involved in helping students with engineering.

Because of the program’s success, it is continuing this summer. There will be three paid interns and two volunteers. The goal of HSSIEP is to encourage students who want to become teachers to gain practical experience and potentially increase the future population of teachers of color.

Nature’s Classroom trips approved

The committee unanimously approved two requests for overnight field trips to Nature’s Classroom that were requested by Hopkinton Middle School principal Alan Keller.

Traditionally the trip is for Grade 6, but because it was skipped this past year due to the pandemic, Grade 7 also will go. The Grade 6 trip will be from Oct. 12-15 in Charlton, and Grade 7 will go from Nov. 8-10 in New Hampshire.