School Committee votes to lift mask mandate at HHS for 3-week trial period

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In a 3-2 vote, the School Committee on Thursday decided to adopt a trial period during which time COVID-vaccinated students at Hopkinton High School can remove masks inside the building. The trial period will run from Nov. 1-19. The mask mandate will resume on Nov. 22 in anticipation of the Thanksgiving holiday and travel.

The trial period was suggested by Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh, after the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) approved Hopkinton to lift the mask mandate based on its high vaccination rate (over 95 percent, according to publicly shared data).

If at any time during the trial period there is a “sharp rise” in cases, the mandate can be put back in place.

Hopkinton becomes the first school district in Massachusetts to enact a policy in which masks are not required.

Chair Nancy Cavanaugh and vice chair Amanda Fargiano voted against the motion, which was introduced after a respectful but emotional discussion.

“I have concerns about the fact that we’re looking to take away one of our layers of mitigation that have kept us safe, and I’m not sure what it is that we’re putting in place that’s going to protect some of the people that can’t be protected,” Nancy Cavanaugh said.

She preferred starting the process by having teachers unmask and stay 6 feet away from students.

On the other hand, Joe Markey said he would prefer that the mask mandate be lifted permanently. He said people are interacting without masks already and there have not been major problems.

“Given where we are, we’re not going to be at a better time than now to at least do a three-week [trial],” Markey said. “I would be advocating for more, but I sense that the consensus of the board is different. I would be advocating for just lift it and leave it like that. But I would at least hope we would come to some compromise. And it’s the superintendent’s recommendation that we do something, to make it three weeks. I would be willing, as a compromise, to take that.”

Said Lya Batlle-Rafferty: “I think the reason I keep being pulled toward the trial is because — and it might be completely illogical — is I feel like people have worked so hard to get vaccinated, and the herd immunity is there.”

Fargiano expressed concern about the efficacy of vaccines that were given six months ago and preferred waiting until booster shots are widely available. She used a Boston Marathon comparison to explain her view.

“I feel like we’ve come down off of Heartbreak Hill and we think we’re done, but we still have that last little bit,” she said. “Part of me wants to go ahead with this trial, and I think there are lots of good reasons to do it. And part of me really wants to go ahead with this trial starting, like, on Martin Luther King Day [Jan. 17]. … I think if we take that three-week window and we do it after the dust settles from post-holiday travel, we’ve finished that last leg of the marathon, and we’ll get our data then.”

The decision clearly weighed heavily on some of the committee members.

“I feel so torn in two,” Meg Tyler said. “All week, I’ve just felt absolutely dissected. I have a child who does not do well with a mask. His learning has suffered incredibly because he cannot see people’s faces and he cannot read social cues. But I’ve tried to kind of extricate that concern from my larger thinking about the community and health. But none of us is a health professional.”

Added Tyler: “I trust [the superintendent’s] judgment. She cares a lot about this district. If she says, ’It’s time for a trial, dudes,’ I’m ready. Let’s do the trial.”

While the superintendent recommended the trial period, she noted some issues. Among them is a “great difficulty in monitoring the students who are vaccinated and unvaccinated,” as vaccine status cannot be shared with faculty. “So there would be a concern that unvaccinated students would be taking off their masks and no one would know they were unvaccinated,” Cavanaugh said.

She also shared the results of a student-generated survey that indicated 70 percent of students prefer unmasking while 30 percent prefer to keep masks.

Cavanaugh added that it would help move the process along much more quickly if parents voluntarily provided proof of vaccination rather than require the school nurses to compile the data from state records.

Health Director Shaun McAuliffe has recommended that the school hold off on lifting the mask mandate, noting that there has been a recent rise in cases in town — from 31 to 46 over the past two weeks.

Students still will be required to wear face coverings on buses.

On a related note, vaccines for children ages 5-11 are expected to be approved by the federal government by early November.