Superintendent explains what led to mask-optional trial period at HHS; teachers union still has concerns

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The Hopkinton School Committee’s 3-2 vote to become the first Massachusetts community to lift the mask requirement for COVID-19 vaccinated students and staff for a three-week trial period in November has brought forth a range of opinions from both inside and outside the community.

Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh recommended to the School Committee at its Oct. 21 meeting that a trial period at Hopkinton High School be instituted before the holiday season. The indoor school mask requirement would be lifted from Nov. 1-19, with a return to the previous policy resuming on Nov. 22.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) announced Oct. 26 that the indoor mask requirement policy for schools with a vaccination rate under 80 percent for students and staff will remain in place until at least Jan. 15.

“It’s so interesting where people are,” Cavanaugh said in an interview with The Independent. “They’re all over the place.”

While she said that some people are “vehemently opposed” to the new policy, others are “really supportive of this, and some people are tentative about it.”

Cavanaugh said she thought about considering a trial period when one of the School Committee members mentioned it to her after the previous School Committee meeting, when lifting the mask requirement first was discussed.

“That’s what got me thinking about it,” she explained. “It just felt like the period before the holiday was a nice, quiet time to try it. I feel like it was a nice, cautious approach, and the timing was a cautious approach.

Said Cavanaugh: “When I originally applied for the off-ramping waiver, it really was just to give us latitude.”

Added Cavanaugh: “One thing that I want to make clear is that lifting a mask mandate is different from unmasking. When you lift a mask mandate, people have options. I think that language clarification is very important for people.”

She also made clear that the School Committee, in its vote, has the option to reverse the policy change should there be a spike in cases.

Timing was a key factor in her decision, she noted, because it is before the Thanksgiving holiday but after most of the fall sports seasons have concluded. Last year during the holiday season, people began traveling, which brought forth concerns about people contracting COVID-19 in places considered hot spots and having to quarantine. A trial period before the holiday season would allow for observation and data collection to see if any cases are contracted during that window.

During the first two months of this school year, only two HHS students contracted the coronavirus, and those were breakthrough cases in vaccinated students, Cavanaugh said.

At the Oct. 21 School Committee meeting, it was announced that the town’s vaccination rate was over 95 percent, and the rate for individuals between age 16-19 was 98 percent.

“I had a conversation with one of the School Committee members [recently],” she said, “and we are in agreement that we’ll probably never ever have a vaccination rate this high again. I think that right now, because of this amazing response to the virus, we’ve got a vaccination rate that is off the charts. DESE was astounded when they saw 98 percent.”

There also are three days off in November during the trial period: a professional development day on Election Day (Nov. 2), the town’s first recognition of Diwali (Nov. 4) and Veterans Day (Nov. 11). These would limit in-school exposure, she added.

Cavanaugh also noted the input of the student council members on the School Committee, who indicated that they “felt like they did the right thing in response to the virus” by getting vaccinated.

“The kids, if we ask them to do something, they just typically do it,” she said. “They’re just good kids. I think our kids just know the rules.”

Cavanaugh also responded to a press release from the Hopkinton Teachers Association criticizing the decision being made without first seeking the input of educators. She said there is a memorandum of agreement with the HTA.

“That agreement said that if we were thinking about taking advantage of the off-ramping, we would certainly let them know,” she explained. “And we have done that. We had a meeting with them in anticipation with the decision last week, and we [had] a meeting with them [Oct. 26]. We have an ongoing dialogue with them.”

HTA expresses concerns

Becky Abate, the head of the Hopkinton Teachers Association, clarified that the administration and School Committee members did meet with the HTA before the School Committee meeting. However, she said that she was told that this was “an educational policy, rather than a health and safety issue.”

“If it is considered an educational policy, they said that they don’t have to negotiate with us,” she said, noting that the HTA currently has 350 members. “They did tell us what they planned on doing but said that they didn’t have to negotiate with us.”

Since that time, there were multiple meetings during the last week of October to iron out teachers’ lingering issues.

“First and foremost, we want to be sure that teachers who have medical conditions that would require additional precautions in the classroom, that those precautions be required,” Abate said. “There are some people whose doctors have told them they need to be around people who are masked, or to avoid being around people who are unmasked. There are some teachers in the high school who have some conditions that would make it difficult for them to be around unmasked students — especially 100 unmasked students on a daily basis.”

Her hope is that students would wear masks in classrooms where teachers have health risks, because teachers work in close proximity to their students.

An enforcement policy for non-vaccinated students was another issue.

“There was no enforcement policy up until [Oct. 28],” she said. “We’re optimistic that we will have a plan for that.”

Abate added that a big concern of the HTA is the feeling that the trial period was rushed.

“There were really no parameters set,” she said regarding the number of COVID-19 cases contracted during the trial period that would lead to its being rescinded. “Is it five cases? Is that enough? Or does it need to be 20 or 100? Those things have not really been hammered out. And when HTA asked, we never really got any clear response.”

Timing is crucial because the new policy went into effect Monday.

“The School Committee’s vote was not unanimous,” Abate said, noting the 3-2 split that occurred after much civil but emotional debate. “It’s not like it’s a very large governing body. Their decision is going to impact 1,000 people or more. And it’s really not just the high school community; it’s the Hopkinton community and the school community as well.”

She added that there is an assumption that kids want to remove their masks. Also, unvaccinated students could also succumb to “implicit peer pressure” and remove their masks.

“If they are the only person who wants to wear a mask, they are likely not to wear the mask,” she explained.

Abate said that “both sides are trying, and we’re making headway.”