June 7, 2021 by Carol Britton Meyer
During last night's School Committee meeting, Supt. of Schools Paul Austin delivered his final COVID-19 update as the school year draws to a close.
"This has been a year like no other," he said, "but we persevered." He expressed appreciation for teachers, other staff members, students, and parents for their efforts and cooperation during this challenging time.
The overall number of COVID-19 cases among students and staff continues to drop, which Austin attributed in part to the high vaccination rate.
He reported that Hingham vaccination statistics show that 67 percent of all residents ages 16-19 have been fully vaccinated and that 92 percent have had at least one dose of the vaccine. Fifty-seven percent of all Hingham residents have been fully vaccinated, he noted.
"Since we began tracking positive COVID-19 cases, we have reported 313 positive infections," he said.
This includes 255 students, for an average of 8.5 student infections per week since the beginning of the school year.
That figure also includes 58 staff, for an average of 1.7 staff infections per week in that same timeframe.
"Hundreds of students and staff have had to quarantine, with the highest week (approximately 240 individuals) occurring in April," Austin reported.
Since the HPS district began offering individual testing for staff beginning January 14, 2021, 2,243 tests have been conducted, resulting in three positive cases, or a 99.9 percent negative testing rate.
The district began pool testing for students on February 25, 2021. "To date, we have collected 849 pools containing tests for 5,321 students," Austin said. "These tests resulted in the identification of three positive pools, which led to the discovery of two positive cases, for a 99.7 percent negative testing rate."
During his school reopening committee update, Austin explained that the guidance for reopening in the fall includes the lifting of all COVID-19 restrictions.
That said, "Masks must continue to be worn inside our school buildings through the summer," Austin said. "For the fall, there will likely be no mask mandate for middle and high school students as a high number have been vaccinated."
Elementary students may be required to wear masks inside school buildings, pending guidance from the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education and the availability of vaccinations, Austin explained.
Parent Susan O'Horo asked what was behind the decision requiring that masks be worn inside school buildings this summer when the Centers for Disease Control is not making such a recommendation "unless someone is unvaccinated" and in light of the fact that the Massachusetts state of emergency will be lifted as of June 15.
Austin explained, "If DESE orders that we wear face masks, we will, and if DESE doesn't, we won't. We're awaiting guidance."
The Reopening Committee is now in recess until such time that it is necessary to meet again, including receiving new guidance from DESE or other information related to the 2021-2022 school year.
In other business at the meeting, there was a conversation about the School Committee meeting format for its June 21 meeting and beyond.
The June 21 meeting will be in-person. School officials are working on a hybrid model in which the public could participate remotely, but the details have not been worked out yet.
This would enable, for example, community members who work at night and METCO families to participate from a distance, Committee member Michelle Ayer noted.
School Committee Chair Kerry Ni noted there has been "increased community engagement" during remote meetings. "We're looking at what other communities are doing to consider what our best practices would be," she said. School Committee meetings, times, and locations are posted on the town website, hingham-ma.gov, including remote access information.
In response to a follow-up email after the meeting, Ni told the Hingham Anchor:
"One positive aspect of the pandemic and related restrictions was a great increase in public participation in our meetings, and we intend to find a way to continue that by offering a remote participation option. This is uniquely important for School Committee meetings, as many of the people who are most interested in our work are parents, who find meeting attendance especially challenging because of childcare responsibilities. We are still working out the logistics with Harbor Media, but our intent is to meet in person and livestream the meeting, with a Zoom option for the public and any members who cannot attend in person."
Zoom participants would be monitored so that they would be able to ask questions or make comments either over Zoom or in the Zoom chat. The meetings will be recorded by Harbor Media and available for later viewing, as always, according to Ni. "The administration is working with Harbor Media, and we will publicize how members of the public can participate remotely as soon as possible," she said.
The Committee is also in the process of reviewing proposed operating protocols, including working toward continuous improvement in teaching and learning; a commitment to effective and efficient public meetings and encouraging community members to attend and participate; debating the issues and not each other; modeling continuous learning by pursuing continuing education opportunities and supporting each other; recognition of the Committee's limitations and the superintendent's role in various matters; and other considerations. The Committee will discuss these proposed protocols and take a vote at its next meeting.
Ayer, who is a member of the School Building Committee and is familiar with the Massachusetts School Building Authority process, was appointed as the School Committee member who will participate in the MSBA review and interviews of project designer candidates relative to the Foster School Feasibility Study.