The School Committee candidates took center stage at the Hopkinton Women’s Club Meet the Candidates Night on Wednesday and shared their thoughts on how the return to in-person learning and masking during the COVID-19 pandemic was handled.
There are three School Committee seats on the May 16 ballot. Current School Committee Chair Nancy Richards-Cavanaugh, a Democrat, is running for reelection against Republican Chris Melton, who was not at Wednesday’s event and indicated he does not plan to campaign further.
Independent Ashley Fogg is running against Democrat Holly Morand for the two-year term that came open following the resignation of Joe Markey.
Democrats Jenn Devlin and Jared Pray are running for the one-year term that opened with the resignation of Meg Tyler.
“I think everybody knows where I stand on masking,” said Fogg. “I stood before the School Committee in February when the final vote [was held] to make masks optional, and I pleaded as a mom of children, young children who I saw struggling really hard with masks. My children are 9, 7 and 4 and my 9- and 7-year-old were struggling to be focused on a mask all day instead of being focused on their education, from different things with rashes on their face to trying to get the right fit to not understanding social cues or teachers missing things that were going on because they couldn’t read kids’ faces. So I am 100 percent and completely for making it optional for kids for masking. I think it should be a family’s choice.”
Morand said she relies on her science background to make informed decisions.
“I’m a very data-driven person,” she said. “I look at the numbers and I say, well, it’s safe for most people, and I go outside with an N95 mask because that it what experts in medicine do. When I was advocating in the past about masking vulnerable people, it was not for myself, it was for the vulnerable people in the community, and that includes family members of vulnerable people, because as we know, our children can be vectors in the spread of disease. So, science evolves, and I am a person that, as I said, I’m data-driven. I’ve spent my whole career in science. Numbers mean a lot to me. And that’s how I make my choices. I use evidence, I use data, I use my own background in research and data analysis.”
Pray, when asked to grade the School Committee’s performance during the pandemic, offered some criticism.
“It was a difficult year for everyone,” he acknowledged. “I think as I look at that I would say as far as the School Committee performed, I would call it a C. Some things went well. Hopkinton should be better. We should have been on the leading edge of bringing students back to school. We should have been on the leading edge of removing masks. We should have been on the leading edge in face-to-face learning time. And the reality is we were at the very end. We were at the top 10 percent when students went back to school the first time the state evaluated it. We were in the bottom 10 percent for face-to-face time between students and teachers. They evaluated it a second time and we didn’t go up, we went down. We went below that bottom 10 percent. That’s disappointing. I think as a town we should expect more. As parents we should expect more. Frankly, I think we need to do better.”
Devlin, a teacher in Southborough, is a former School Committee member (2017-20) who volunteered on the Reentry Group, which studied and discussed the return to in-person learning early in the pandemic. She was more positive in her assessment of the committee’s efforts over the past two years.
“I appreciated the very sort-of collaborative and sort-of open approach that the School Committee and the superintendent made to try to get input from the community,” she said. “I think it’s tricky because I think a lot of us were focused on our families and on our own situation at the time, so folks may not have participated for a whole host of reasons. … With the information that we had at the time, I appreciated that we went maskless in November . We were the first school district I believe in the country [to do so]. … I think we made the right calls, we tried different options to try to see what was the best choice with the information that we had at the time. And I think we did well. But of course, in hindsight, you can always find out where you didn’t do well and you can look back and try to make sure you don’t make those same mistakes next time around.”
A resident noted that the return to full-time in-person learning took place one year ago, in April of 2021, and she asked the candidates how they would have voted.
“I think we did it at the right time,” said Devlin. “I think if we had tried to do it earlier in the year, based on what was going on in February and in March where things kind of peaked and started to head back down, I think we picked the right time. And it was kind of a nice cut, April vacation, come back to school.”
Said Pray: “I think we went back too late. I think we were too slow. … I was disappointed. I thought we should have gone back a little bit earlier than we did.”
Fogg said she “pushed for full-time return.”
Morand said she would have supported a return to school with full masking. However, she reached out Thursday to clarify, saying she only would have supported a full-time return if additional mitigation strategies were implemented, most notably universal weekly testing.
Richards-Cavanaugh commented on the recent turmoil within the School Committee that culminated with the two resignations.
“There were a couple of difficult months,” she said. “It was totally unexpected resignations. I would never cast any judgment on somebody, having been through two years of what we went through. They decided for their own reasons that they wanted to step back. I was not given any reasons from those members. I appreciate all the work they put into it. I’ll also say it wasn’t one faction against another. The School Committee is a body of five. We voted different ways on different points. And the three remaining members who are on the committee, of the four masking votes that we had, there was only one where all three of us agreed.”
Select Board candidates share thoughts
The other featured race is for Select Board, where three candidates are vying for two seats: Democrats Mary Jo LaFreniere and Shahidul Mannan along with Republican John Coutinho.
LaFreniere, an incumbent, is one of four Democrats on the board. She was asked if a conservative opinion like Coutinho’s would be marginalized because the Democrats could vote in a bloc against him.
“We are a very busy, conscientious working board of selectmen, and our total attitude is for the good of the town,” she said. “We don’t discuss individuals. We never have and I don’t think we ever will. … We do have differences of opinion, and that’s what makes everything work. We’re a team. We work as a team. No one person runs the board. We all manage to give our opinions, we all manage to say what we feel and we come out with I think a good consensus for moving the town forward. … I only care for Hopkinton and how it’s moving forward.”
Coutinho, a former Select Board member who has served on other boards, said he has a history of working with people who look at situations from a different viewpoint and finding common ground.
“I believe that if everybody goes into a negotiation with the thought that the person on the other side has the best interests of the town or whatever it is at heart, that things can get done,” he said. “It’s tough to be on a board that may work as a bloc or something like that, but I just hope that’s not the case.”
Mannan also has served on multiple boards and committees and currently holds a spot on the Planning Board.
“I just want to focus on the positivity of the volunteers who come to these boards and work for this town and the betterment of our lives,” he said. “And I truly believe that Hopkinton has a unique, talented group of volunteers who work on all the boards, spend time away from their families, away from … whatever profession they are in, for the good of the town. Nobody comes here to hurt anyone or harm anyone. And that’s my fundamental belief. I truly believe that. Having said that, we will have differences in opinions. We will have various backgrounds and positions, and that’s OK. That’s what democracy is about. And let the best idea win. Let the best thing come out of it. We want to focus on the future, on what we can build from here.”
There has been a lot of turnover at the Police Department over the past year. All three candidates said they fully support the town’s police and have no interest in pulling funding.
“Obviously I think the data shows that there’s support for the police,” Mannan said. “We are proud to have our police who have kept our town so safe that we are one of the safest if not the safest town in the nation. I haven’t heard of defunding the police in action or any form of discussion by the leaders that I see and work with on the Select Board. One thing I definitely also want to emphasize is we want to continue to support our police because this is the fabric of our society, to maintain our security. The very notion that I can press 9-1-1 and expect someone at my door in a few minutes and jump in with whatever problem I may have to solve it is a huge, huge advantage and privilege. And we should not and we do not take it lightly. Having said that, I believe that our compensation, our benefits for police and first responders, there’s opportunity to emphasize more, to make it more competitive.”
Coutinho said police deserve to be treated with more respect.
“There’s been a national narrative that police are bad,” Coutinho said. “Well, we’ve got the No. 1 safest community in the country right now. We have had it for several years. During some tragedies that happened in our town and around the country, our Police Department was looked at by many as not doing their job correctly. And many police officers took offense to that, because they worked very hard to get us to be the No. 1 safest community. And many believed that they were doing a very good job and should have had support of many of the people above them and didn’t feel as though they got the support and respect and love that we should give to every police officer, thanking them for their service as much as possible. And every day thanking them, because they do keep us safe, and they keep our property values up and really take very good care of us. So whenever we see a police officer in town we should thank them and show them that same respect.”
LaFreniere dismissed any suggestion that the current Select Board has not been supportive enough of the police.
“I have never heard a word said by our Select Board today and our past Select Board that I worked with for two years, I’ve never heard the words, ‘Defunding the police.’ ” she said. “We have done nothing but support the Police Department. We have hired new hires. We have done everything we can to support the Police Department. These rumors are exactly that — they’re rumors. And I don’t know where they’re coming from, but this Board of Selectmen in any of their meetings has never, ever, ever once mentioned defunding the police, or did an article or had a discussion or brought forth anything of that nature that is going to defund our Police Department. This Board of Selectmen supports the police 100 percent.”
For a complete list of seats on the ballot for the May 16 Town Election and information about the candidates, click here.