School Committee weighs continued COVID precautions against emotional strain from ‘culture of fear’

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At Thursday’s School Committee meeting, Chair Nancy Cavanaugh welcomed the Board of Health, which requested a joint meeting with the committee to discuss the rise in COVID-19 cases because of the omicron variant, which is considered highly contagious in comparison with previous variants.

“I just want to start by saying that this has been a really challenging time for people,” Cavanaugh said, noting that the committee has received feedback on both sides of the issue of restriction policies. “I feel like we are in a time when people have very strong opinions, which is great. I’m hoping we can come together as a town and work toward navigating the next piece of this together in a way that is best for everybody, really, for the health and safety and educational benefit of our kids.”

Elizabeth Whittemore, the Board of Health chair, echoed this sentiment.

“We may not all agree about how we get there,” she said. “But I think we all agree that we want our communities to stay open and our schools to stay open.”

Whittemore noted that the Board of Health is moving away from contact tracing and instead relying on a personal responsibility model, following the lead of the state’s Department of Public Health.

School Committee Member Joe Markey pointed out that children, who are in the population least at risk for suffering severe illness from the coronavirus, “have really shouldered the bulk of the burden for preventing the spread” during the pandemic to protect others.

Board of Health Director Shaun McAuliffe said the latest data shows there have been 541 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the year, the highest number the town has experienced in a 10-day period since the pandemic began. Forty percent of those cases were school-aged children, which is a drastic jump. Also, 40 percent of the 541 cases occurred in people who were fully vaccinated.

While last week’s positivity rate was 14.14 percent, this week it is 21.24 percent, a leap that McAuliffe said is comparable to area towns.

Right now, he said, “Schools are bearing the brunt of the illness.”

In other communities that decided to off-ramp from the mask mandate policy because their school population testing rates reached 80 percent or higher, there have been similar increases.

Variants also have changed. There now are two strains of the omicron virus here, one from South Africa and the other from the European Union. This illustrates that Hopkinton is “highly mobile” in its travel patterns.

McAuliffe also suggested a change in approach about dealing with COVID-19 regarding the five-day return to school policy — staying home if one has the coronavirus and then receiving a negative test on the sixth day to allow a student whose symptoms have improved to return. He noted that other towns are considering Hopkinton’s return policy.

“All of the work that we’ve done over the last two years, it’s really been ingrained that you’re really not free from COVID until Day 8,” he explained.

Some kids who returned to school over the past four days tested positive on an antigen test, including 43 percent of those returning on Jan. 10. McAuliffe’s concern is that there is a potential for spread, particularly during lunch and snack times when students are unmasked.

School Committee Member Amanda Fargiano asked about vaccination rates for younger children as well as booster rates. On a positive note, the percentage of those ages 5-11 who have been vaccinated rose to 91 percent. Most young children are not eligible for booster shots, but McAuliffe said he just received a $19,000 grant to set up booster clinics.

“In theory, we’re going to run out of places to infect our residents,” McAuliffe said because of the current high exposure rate.

He added that he expects the number of positive cases “to almost double” over the next two weeks to about 1,200 cases, followed by a decline in the rate of illness.

At this point the rate of exposure for children is about three times more than that of elders; however, seniors are more likely to have serious health issues.

“Isn’t there a great positive story in this for Hopkinton?” Markey pressed, noting that national coronavirus expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday that virtually everyone will get COVID-19 at some point. “We’re very highly vaccinated and highly boosted.

“We hear the case count and the dread and the panic,” he continued. “But it’s all according to predictions.”

McAuliffe said that he has been communicating with elder homes and care facilities. Some people have developed serious symptoms because they were infected by their grandchildren, which leads to reducing the exposure risk in the schools.

“Right now, we’re trying to make sure we don’t have to close a classroom or close a building,” Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh added later in the meeting.

School Committee Member Lya Batlle-Rafferty asked about the effects of long COVID on children and how vaccines can affect long COVID in children. McAuliffe said there isn’t enough data on that subject yet.

While Member Meg Tyler expressed concern over those who have had severe symptoms, she balanced that with “how long we have to live in this culture of fear,” which has its own health consequences. McAuliffe said that he is looking for grants to allow an increase in counseling programs.

Whittemore said that there is a shift toward personal responsibility, but that there still is a challenge. Tools such as masking, testing, boosters and education will help change the perception from a crisis to something more manageable.

Markey said he felt that masks for students have been detrimental, whereas other populations who are more likely to spread the virus are not regulated in such a strict manner.

Board of Health members stressed that, for now, masks should be worn in school to be able to keep students in class.

Parent Christine Hagberg noted that, unlike other situations, children have no choice about attending school. She explained that her son developed a lung condition last year, which makes him more vulnerable if he is exposed to the virus despite being vaccinated.

“I don’t know what getting COVID will do,” she said. “He certainly feels better when he sees everyone wearing masks.”