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School Committee votes to institute another mask-optional trial period at HHS

by | Dec 3, 2021 | Education, Featured: Education

Following the success of the mask-optional trial period for COVID-vaccinated students and staff at Hopkinton High School over the first three weeks in November, the School Committee voted 4-0-1 at Thursday’s meeting to implement a second trial period, running Dec. 6-23.

Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh gave a report citing the feedback from a survey of 428 participants, including students, administrators and staff, that included many positive aspects about the ability to learn and communicate while unmasked.

Positive comments included 325 responses that said individuals were “able to see, evaluate and communicate through facial expressions,” while 325 said their hearing improved because voices were not muffled by masks. Lip reading to improve comprehension was helpful for 213 respondents.

On the downside, 91 respondents reported that unmasking made them feel unsafe. Fifty-one had to move away from those who were unmasked, which they said made teaching, learning and communicating more challenging. Seventy-two participants said they felt they had to justify their use of masks, which made them feel marginalized at times. Seventy-eight said that unmasking didn’t improve their communicating, teaching or learning experience.

Among general comments submitted, there was a statement about students being respectful of teachers who have young children, have health issues or were pregnant and preferred that students wear masks. Another said that the trial period went well because there were no cases of COVID-19 being reported. One response suggested that the mask mandate be continued through the holiday season, while another response said the policy was divisive.

The superintendent noted that the recent outbreak at Elmwood School was not related to the mask-optional policy at the high school. She also said that the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) announced that mask use will be required by players, coaches and officials at winter sporting events, a policy that was not in place when the trial went into effect.

Cavanaugh added that Hopkinton received a commendation for the trial mask-optional period from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), which instituted the state requirement of an 80 percent vaccination rate for students and staff to be eligible to waive the mask mandate policy.

Chair Nancy Cavanaugh asked if there had been any feedback from the Board of Health or Health Department Director Shaun McAuliffe about the trial.

“I think [McAuliffe] had some trepidation, as you’ll remember,” the superintendent responded. “But I think as we went through the process, he said … if we get through this and nothing outrageous happens, it’s going to be kind of miraculous.”

She added that the reason she believed the trial went so well was because the town achieved a 98 percent vaccination rate among eligible individuals.

The superintendent recommended another trial period, starting Dec. 6 and lasting until Dec. 23, when school recesses for the winter break. If there were an outbreak, there could be an emergency School Committee meeting, or she could temporarily rescind the mask-optional policy.

“I’m happy to hear the educational benefits from the students and the teachers in the high school,” said Member Joe Markey. “We’ve all been concerned about social and emotional health at the high school, and to hear about contagious smiling and things like that is really reassuring.”

Member Meg Tyler added that she was pleased that students were respectful of teachers with issues where mask wearing made them more comfortable.

Member Amanda Fargiano commended the superintendent for implementing a successful policy that other districts are hoping to emulate with her guidance.

“You came forward with a cautious recommendation and implemented it in a way that was respectful to families and respectful to the benefits of individual choice,” she said.

“The students are very thankful to you, too,” added student council representative Jessica Ianelli.

“You might let one or two snow days slide this year,” she joked, which drew an outburst of laughter from committee members and administrators.

Nancy Cavanaugh said that she was concerned about the new Omicron variant that just surfaced in California. She said she would rather see the new trial period moved a week further into December to allow for more coronavirus data to be received for the post-Thanksgiving period, which led to her abstention from the vote.

When students return from the December break, the mask mandate will go back into effect. The School Committee will review the policy again in January.

District awaits word on Elmwood

In other news, the superintendent announced that all the documentation for the Elmwood School building project proposal has been submitted to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for approval.

On Dec. 15, the district will learn if the proposal is eligible to enter a feasibility period.

If that happens, the district will begin a study for the project as well as a complete facilities and educational programming study. Public outreach will begin at that point.

Superintendent sets goals

The superintendent outlined her goals for the district. She noted that as the district has emerged from the pandemic, student learning data should be used to drive instruction. A key area to examine will be literacy growth and achievement at the secondary level.

Greater proficiency in diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice was another key area of focus. She is working on diversifying the workforce at all levels and including diversity, equity and inclusion in the curriculum at every school. There also is a hope that the Special Education Parents Advisory Council (SEPAC) and the English Learner Parent Advisory Council (ELPAC) will grow.

Because of current and anticipated enrollment growth, there will be a three- to five-year plan about building use and expansion. Another goal was to help students ease the transition from building to building as they advance in their education, particularly for those in special programs. Social emotional learning is another priority, and the new SEL director has been working on building this into the curriculum at all levels.

Budget requests presented

This is the second meeting in which Fiscal Year 2023 budget requests were made by various department heads and principals.

High school Principal Evan Bishop requested funding to be able to add sections of classes. One of the current needs he mentioned was for French, where the average class size was 27 students, as well as for wellness instruction for ninth- and 10th-graders, as those groups also had large class sizes. There were other departments that requested relatively small increases.

“You have kept this eminently reasonable,” said Member Lya Batlle-Rafferty after Bishop’s presentation, a theme that was expressed to the others who made their requests.

Middle school principal Allan Keller said that since FY20, there hasn’t been anyone managing the library, so he put in a request for one staff member. He also asked that there be a 0.3 increase in the media literacy position to make it full-time. He also requested additional hours for a summer campus aide to help process registrations. Peer mentorship program training was another budgetary request, as well as the music supply budget for new instruments. Keller noted that two of the bass clarinets are more than 30 years old.

Athletic Director Rich Cormier asked for a larger athletic budget, noting that the costs have gone up for equipment because of supply chain issues. For example, a dozen baseballs costs $10 more. He noted that there were decreases in interest in field hockey and softball, which allowed for some budgetary savings. Football, cross country and track enrollments have risen.

Cormier also proposed a $25 increase for the high school students who participate in sports to $225. However, he said he would like to eliminate ticket sales.

“I feel very strongly that we want our students and our families in the communities to be able to attend these games without having to worry about spending money,” he said, noting that financial assistance is available for families who need it.

He also proposed creating a pilot girls golf program for the next two years. Currently, female students compete on the boys team. This would allow them to be able to compete in their own state championship against other female teams. It would be funded by athletic fees and potential fundraisers. This was approved 5-0 to begin in the spring.

Assistant Superintendent Jen Parson highlighted a request for an English language learner teacher to accommodate the growing number of students for whom English is not their first language. In 2014-15, only 1.4 percent of students were English language learners, compared to 6.9 percent this school year.

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